Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel (Frontiers, 2014)
So here we go: my first new album purchase of 2014 and my first album review for this blog, and we’re starting on a very promising note: Jake E. Lee, former Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands guitarist, has emerged from the fog with his first new band in what must be at least twenty years, Red Dragon Cartel, and they’ve brought out a self-titled debut album for the new year. I’ve listened to it a couple of times now (third time coming up soon) and… actually, I’d first like to thank Amazon for actually getting a CD order to me on its release date for once. Cheers for that. Anyway, I’ve listened to it twice and drummed up my thoughts on it, which you are invited to read below. Obviously this is no substitute for listening to the actual music, so if I do peak your interest go listen to some samples on iTunes or wherever and see if you want to get it yourself.
Little disclaimer before we start: I won’t be ranking my review with a number as many reviewers do (though there will be a final verdict), so no scrolling down to the bottom and hurrying off to whatever it is you plan to do with your day (unless it’s putting out fires, in which case I’m cool with you speeding through, but it’d still have to be quite a lot of them). I worked hard on this. Well, I worked on it, anyway, so do please read at your own leisure. Additionally, I know some people don’t like the track-by-track format, but I find it a handy way of organising my observations and opinions while preventing me from drifting off into waffle-y, self-important prose. Plus, it’s how you listen to an album, y’know? I mean, come on.
A speedy, choppy riff opens up the album: if we’re playing the Comparisons Game it sounds a lot like “Bark at the Moon,” which may or may not have been intentional. Anyway, Jake E. Lee’s back and this song does a great job of signalling that. It’s simple, sure, but it’s fast and it rocks, with a decent chorus to punctuate the verses (I quite like the bridge as well), which is all I’m asking for to kick things off. As for the soloing? Pretty brilliant: you just know we’re in for a good time here. Overall a promising start.
2. Shout It Out
Slight change of pace with this one, which is always welcome: a heavier, slower, groovier riff, verging on industrial metal. Actually, the quiet verse-loud chorus contrast is very industrial. You could even call it nu-metal: it’s certainly got that boisterous, us-against-the-world attitude to it, especially when it comes to the take-no-prisoners chorus (were you expecting something more subdued from a song called “Shout It Out”?) that sounds a bit like John Bush-era Anthrax. Smith’s singing is also given more room to experiment, taking on some quieter passages as well as some higher notes – I’m expecting good things from him. Early favourite for me: lots of attitude with a great riff for headbanging.
3. Feeder (feat. Robin Zander)
This was the first track released from Red Dragon Cartel and, to be honest, it took a little while to grow on me; but when it finally clicked, my finger didn’t leave the repeat button for a week. I love that crunching guitar sound, playing what could almost be a funk-metal riff; contrasted against the psychedelic melody it makes for a great listening experience. It’s always good to hear Robin Zander’s vocals, too, especially as we haven’t had a new Cheap Trick record in nearly five years (as it turns out, Tom Petersson also plays bass on the track – didn’t see that one coming). As much as I like Smith’s style, I would love to hear more collaborations with Zander in the future. A very early favourite for me and still possibly my favourite track on the album.
4. Fall from the Sky (Seagull)
A ballad, you say? Sure, why not? Typically, things slow down and stretch out for a while here. It’s quite a sad song, but quite nice as well, to be honest, and relaxing too: I could picture myself sitting on the deck of a beach-house, looking out at the sun disappearing behind the ocean, the last traces of its orange glow fading to brown, then to black, as seagulls fall from the sky… actually, that last bit isn’t quite so tranquil, is it? It’s passionate, but relaxing all the same. Lee gets a wonderful solo towards the end as well, briefly mimicking a seagull’s cry, something I always like to hear on guitar (though the only other place I’ve heard it done is Budgie’s “Parents”). A nice break from all the heavy rock…
5. Wasted (feat. Paul Di’Anno)
…and we’re right back in again: the band tighten up for another tough, fast rocker, this time with former Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno. Got to say, I really like the riff here: it’s not a particularly complex or noteworthy riff, but it’s got this biker-rock punch to it that I really like. As for the vocals, I haven’t listened to anything Di’Anno’s done since Maiden’s Killers from 1981, so it’s nice to hear from his gravelly voice again; and it has to be said that, his more recent troubles aside, the guy’s still got something. I love that tremolo in his vocals during the verses, though I could have done without the brief talk-box effect at the end there. Still, great, great track.
I’ll admit, this one sorta passed me by on first listen. Not sure why, because it’s actually a pretty good song. The speed keeps up with another buzz-saw riff, backing another psychedelic melody with very slight Eastern tinges in the bridge. It’s got probably one of the best choruses on the album, as well: that brief, descending chant they put in there is a nice touch, and the melody clicks with the riff nicely. Not a standout for me, personally, but a good listen nonetheless.
7. Big Mouth (feat. Maria Brink)
Things slow riiiiiiiight down for “Big Mouth,” featuring In This Moment’s Maria Brink. I hadn’t heard very good things about this song beforehand, so I approached it with trepidation and… it’s not that bad at all. Okay, it’s a little plodding, the riff isn’t really there and the melody could have used a few more hooks, but I enjoyed it all the same: it’s got this twitchy, bottom-heavy alt-metal style to it that I don’t mind at all – think the Black Keys played by Ripper-era Judas Priest, sorta. As for the vocals, I haven’t really listened to much In This Moment so I can’t draw comparisons there, but Brink does a decent job, even if she gets a bit scream-y at times. Not the best track on the album, but better than I’d been led to believe, so I’m quite happy about that. Check out that solo towards the end as well. Nice.
8. War Machine
Another heavy, snarling beast of a tune, “War Machine” has a marching riff that might just remind you of a certain Black Sabbath song, but the music soon takes on its own identity. Again, it’s the little touches that make it work for me – the little swaggering shifts in the riff, those ‘ooh-ah-oohs’ in the chorus – but overall it’s a brute of a song, bristling with heavy rock attitude and grit. If I have one criticism, it’s that there’s not quite enough distinction between the verse and the chorus, so they kinda blend together if you’re not listening carefully, but that’s a minor quibble. Definitely a personal highlight for me.
9. Redeem Me (feat. Sass Jordan)
A lighter, more melodic offering to start winding down the album, with vocalist Sass Jordan taking the reins. I can’t honestly say I’d heard of Sass Jordan before now, but I must say I like her style. The song itself didn’t do much for me on first listen, but the second’s doing a fair bit: slight touches of soul and AOR in the chorus which remind me of Snakecharmer or The Union, and I do like being reminded of those bands. It gets heavier towards the end, with another great, groove-riding riff and some terrific soloing, but otherwise it’s easily the most melodic track on the album. Not a problem at all – this is a dragon with many faces, it seems.
10. Exquisite Tenderness
Now isn’t that just a lovely name for a closing track? Funnily enough, it’s a piano instrumental, which the liner notes tell me is “the first song Jake ever wrote in his life.” It might not be what you’d expect from such a hard rocking album, but it’s actually very nice: short, sweet and closes the album on a lovely note.
VERDICT: Recommended. Some critics might find it too basic or whatever, but for a debut album from Jake E. Lee’s first band in I-don’t-even-want-to-consider-how-many years it’s all we could have asked for: a solid, highly enjoyable hard rock album with some great riffs and songs that improve with each listen. Is it any different from any other rock record you’ll hear this year? Probably not, but it has enough great moments and surprises to kick off your 2014 in the right way (as it has for me). The multiple-singers concept holds together better than I would have thought, too, although I would have liked to hear more from Darren James Smith: if a Red Dragon Cartel II ever emerges (and I hope it does) it’d be nice to have him perform all the vocals, with maybe one more song with Robin Zander.
PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS: “Shout It Out;” “Feeder;” “Wasted;” “War Machine”
Red Dragon Cartel is out now on Frontiers.