Month: January 2014

Album Review: Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel

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.

1. Deceived

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.

6. Slave

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.

Advertisements

Red Dwarf I, episode 5: “Confidence and Paranoia”

Red Dwarf I, episode 5: “Confidence and Paranoia”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 14th March 1988.

How’s about this for a formula (yes, I’m still experimenting) – I basically describe what happens in each episode, peppered with personal commentary, and round it off to some sort of point at the end? It’s not thoroughly imaginative or original, but I’m trying to kick off a blog here – that’s tough enough, what with all the academic essays and reading I have to do in the real world, but I’m also looking forward to getting on to writing about other shows. Not to mention all the musical stuff I want to write about – there’s a few juicy album releases on my radar coming out soon, so I’d like to review them, along with some Starostin-style looking back through my CD collection. I don’t mind writing about Red Dwarf at all, but I need to find a consistent formula if I want to switch my writing to a higher gear and get all ten series – Back to Earth counts, right? – reviewed before I’m dead.

Actually, isn’t Naylor supposed to be writing an eleventh? Right, sleeves up, let’s go.

Here’s the skinny with episode 5, “Confidence and Paranoia”: because Rimmer won’t give him Kochanski’s hol0-disk to spend some time with her, Lister has been moping around in her old quarters, as you do. Trouble is, they haven’t been decontaminated yet and, as a result, Lister contracts pneumonia – or at least, what used to be pneumonia but, after three million years, has since evolved into something else. Lister passes out from sickness and Rimmer rushes to his aid, after which he–

Wait, hang on a minute: Rimmer actually cares about Lister’s well-being for once?

Yep, after four episodes of antagonism between the two, we get to see Rimmer genuinely concerned about Lister, and it really is rather nice. But the drama doesn’t last long (lest this show take itself even slightly seriously) before we’re back to physical comedy and barbed banter, including a decent little scene in the medical bay involving eye-pokery, Rimmer-rambling and scutter-fail.

Pictured: those things what I just said.

Turns out, this “nu-monia” (hilarious, aren’t I?) brings Lister’s visions and personality traits to life: some raining fish, an exploding mayor, and his confidence and his paranoia, personified as a game show host and a snivelling runt of a man respectively. While Lister hangs about with his Confidence, Rimmer, stuck with Lister’s Paranoia, looks for a way to eradicate them. They are symptoms of the virus, after all, and will do what they can to–

Wait, Rimmer’s still trying to help Lister? Was he hit with some sort of mutated virus as well?

Heaven alone knows what Paranoia’s contracted.

Well, actually, Confidence and Paranoia are symptoms of Lister’s sickness, so Rimmer deduces that they are doing everything they can to keep him sick and, by extension, themselves and the virus alive. I’m not sure I agree with that wholeheartedly: I mean yes, Confidence is clearly making himself a welcome part in Lister’s life, but how is Paranoia doing that? Surely he should be trying to make Lister too paranoid about taking up any treatment for his illness rather than just sniping at him to Rimmer? It’s also telling that Lister’s other visible symptoms  conveniently disappear once C&P turn up – he definitely perks up once Confidence arrives, which suggests that C&P aren’t really doing anything at all. Maybe Lister’s other symptoms have been externalised in those two? I don’t know. It’s probably not worth thinking about too much.

As you’d expect, Confidence is the personification of everything Lister finds appealing, constantly praising Lister on everything he does; whereas Paranoia persists in critiquing Lister’s appearance, history and, well, everything about him. I suppose this develops Lister’s character a little, learning what he got up to in his youth, what frightened him and whatnot – that be what character growth are, no? – while throwing in a few gross-out facts about his, er, sexual development. Lister and Confidence hanging out together makes for some funny bits as well, largely relying on Confidence’s permanently-gobsmacked awe of his host.

Eventually Confidence gathers some vital information for Lister: he knows where Rimmer’s hidden the holo-disks – outside the ship. As they venture out to get them, Confidence casually mentions that he killed Paranoia. As in, he straight-up murders the other symptom of the virus off-screen. I suppose that makes some sort of sense – Paranoia was a drag, maaan – but still, what the heck? Eh, gets rid of Paranoia, anyway, and at least Lister finally sees Confidence’s craziness, but Confidence pushes it too far by trying to convince Lister to take off his helmet (you’re trying to keep your host alive, right? Great job, Confidence). On seeing Lister’s reluctance, Confidence proudly removes his own to show there’s nothing to worry about and, well…

Now who's crazy?

Now who’s crazy?

On the plus side, though, Rimmer finally lets Lister open up Kochanski’s holo-disk and see her again – only to ruin Lister’s day even further by revealing that he swapped Kochanski’s disk with… a second Rimmer disk. Not totally sure how he managed that: okay, he must have copied his own disk, but how’d he do that while he was still using it? Unless he turned himself off and Holly did it for him, but why would Holly agree to that? Nevertheless, the end result is that Lister has no Kochanski and two Rimmers to deal with.

“Confidence and Paranoia” is actually quite an important episode in its own right, as it’s the first episode in the run to feature characters that aren’t part of the core cast in prominent, plot-relevant roles (I think we can exclude the first half of “The End” here. Well, I’m going to, anyway) and, technically, it’s the first episode to feature any sort of villain (though Cat’s cold detachment came close at times). This would become more common as the show continued, possibly as Grant and Naylor started running low on things to do with the four main characters alone. For now, though, this was an interesting break from Rimmer-Lister antagonism as a driving plot point, introducing some literal germs (well, viral symptoms, but shut up) to the slap-shod social system the characters have constructed.

It’s not the funniest episode in the run, and the wackiness, especially concerning a character like Confidence, might be a bit too much for some people to stomach, especially as it gets in the way of the show’s greatest strength: the Rimmer-Lister interactions. There’s also a lot less Holly in this episode, which is a shame. However, it has its strengths in some funny bits here and there, while slowly pushing the show towards introducing more characters and more outlandish situations. Plus I kinda like the wackiness – makes for a decent change from the relative dourness of “Waiting for God” – and it sets up the series finale nicely, ending with a shocked Lister and Cat and two very smug Rimmers.

Two Rimmers. One Lister. Oh yes, there will be banter.

THAT BLOGGER RUN-OFF THING THAT ALL BLOGGERS AND REVIEWERS DO THAT I’M REALLY NOT FOND OF BUT I DO IT ANYWAY BECAUSE IT LETS ME TICK OFF THE STUFF I COULDN’T GET IN THE TEXT WHILE MAKING FOR A NICE FINISH TO THE POST. THAT THING.

  • “It really is going to be one of those days, isn’t it?”
  • It’s generally well-known for anyone who’s seen the episode and/or knows the show, but yes, that is Craig Ferguson of Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson fame playing Lister’s Confidence. He does a pretty good job, too, though the American accent is suitably atrocious. Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?
  • Oh please, I saw Danny John-Jules flipping that chicken away. You don’t fool me, Red Dwarf.
  • So… this is a virus that can create living flesh-and-blood people from Lister’s mind. He creates a metric tonne of fish and a exploding mayor, not to mention C&P. Does this mean Lister’s psuedo-pneumonia is some sort of God-virus? If he thought about Kochanski, would she turn up in the control room? Sure, she’d be a symptom of his illness doing everything to keep him sick, but Lister probably wouldn’t mind. Cat ate the fish, after all, and, er… where am I going with this?
  • Confidence’s version of Lister’s “kindle” song is very short but very funny.
  • Missed comedic potential: Rimmer clearly enjoys being regailed by Paranoia about all of Lister’s embarrassing secrets, yet is dead keen on removing said symptom. It would have been nice to have a couple of jokes about Rimmer’s personal dilemma here.
  • The low-budget SFX of Confidence exploding into space are really quite horrifying – almost as bad as that Kryten’s exploding head bit later on in the series, where it quickly flashes to the dead-eyed prop head and you’re reunited with your breakfast.
  • I haven’t said much about Cat in this episode. That’s because, as usual, Cat’s role in proceedings is as limited as could be. A character who acts as comic relief to what are generally some pretty light comedy situations anyway is a weird concept that I really should have gone into in some detail by now. Eh, maybe next time.

Red Dwarf I, episode 4: “Waiting for God”

Red Dwarf I, episode 4: “Waiting for God”

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor; originally transmitted 7th March 1988.

THE PLOT, IN LESS THAN FIFTEEN WORDS

Rimmer examines an “alien spacecraft,” Lister examines the Cat religion and Cat does stuff.

BIG THEME TALK NOW

A feature-within-a-feature wherein I discuss big, weighty issues with the rambling self-entitlement of an academic who’s had too much mulled wine and brisket.

So. Something as trivial as a science fiction sitcom handling something as influential and all-pervading as religion. Let’s get to the big question: is it offensive to faith and religious belief, and would a religious person feel uncomfortable watching it? Well, as Herr Flick from ‘Allo! ‘Allo! would say, “possibly… but possibly not.” And then he’d bonk you on the head, but we’ll sidestep that.

Don’t get it wrong, it doesn’t avoid the issues at hand, touching on blind faith, textual misinterpretation of holy books and the idea of religion going too far (all largely for comedic purposes). For the most part, though, it’s a balanced approach where the characters’ attitudes towards the flaws of religion are balanced out by their own flaws: Cat largely rejects the teachings he was brought up with, yet he’s also a vain egotist who ignores and trivialises the suffering of others, so he probably isn’t an author tract for the benefits of rejecting belief; Rimmer ridicules theism, yet he pretty much invents the Quagaars on the fly simply to justify his interest in the pod. Religious conflict is discussed, though exaggerated to fit the show’s offbeat sense of humour (I don’t think actual holy wars were fought over something as trivial as hat colours, though your mileage may vary on that). Lister is dismayed at the actions of the cats, yet even then his message isn’t that religion is inherently bad or even that the cats’ faith was misguided: it’s that “they’re just using religion as an excuse to be extremely crappy to each other,” something that the American religious right could easily be accused of perpetrating.

As for personal faith, that of the Cat Priest fails him at the end and he’s even gone blind as if to say… well, I’m not sure what it’s saying, to be honest. Blind faith? Maybe, but he had faith before he went blind and lost it afterwards, so… blind rejection of faith? I don’t know and it’s making my brain hurt trying to untangle it, but it is worth noting that, at the very end, the Cat Priest’s faith is validated: Cloister does indeed return, a potential message of the power of faith and hope. If you find such a pro-religious notion ridiculous and not really indicative of how real life works, you’d have to put that same approach to the anti-religious messages presented here that you do agree with as well, lest ye be accused of cherry-picking to suit your agenda – and nobody likes that, save the people who actually do it.

If anything it’s equally offensive to sci-fi hard-liners for ridiculing the existence of aliens – what is that if not two fingers to Star Trek and Doctor Who, geek-ligions in themselves?* So I’d argue that Red Dwarf here takes a decidedly humanistic approach, not outright rejecting the spiritual but advising caution when dealing with the unknown. Whatever your beliefs, it’s a nice message. I don’t know how spiritual or non-spiritual Grant and Naylor are/were and, to be honest, I don’t really care, but I do applaud them for a respectful and thought-provoking examination of such a sensitive topic. And if, despite all this, you still find this episode uncomfortable to watch, remember what Mystery Science Theater 3000 said: “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.” It’s far less on-the-nose about it than “Lemons” or that crack about the missing Bible page, anyway.

BIG TALK END NOW

For a sitcom episode it throws some impressive punches, which might be enough to sing its praises. However, that’s not quite enough for me – despite all my analytical flimflam up there, I still have to be able to sit back, unshackle my chains and laugh heartily (if you’re thinking of a Southern sugar tycoon when you hear that phrase, you’re thinking right). So let’s slip in a little bit as to why this episode doesn’t tick all my boxes: the themes here are meaty, but they overwhelm everything else and the plot itself comes off as really rather thin and I find it difficult to recall exactly what’s happened apart from “well, religion, Rimmer being a git, the garbage pod and, er, a priest cat”; the jokes, in my opinion, aren’t as strong as in previous episodes, though Rimmer and Lister’s barbed banter remains as wonderful as before; and it’s a personal thing, as well, but Cat’s self-centred attitude towards the priest comes off as a little too cold for my liking. Like, seriously, man? At least Cat would grow in later seasons, but his lack of empathy can be pretty startling at times.

After three rough diamonds, we get more of a rough opal; that’s my haven’t-quite-thought-this-through way of saying that “Waiting for God” is might just be the weakest episode in the show’s run so far. It isn’t a bad episode by any means – it’s actually pretty great – but personally it’s my least favourite so far. But that’s opinions for you.

*An amalgam of ‘geek’ and ‘religion’ that I’m trying to get off the ground. Your help in this matter would be appreciated.

BULLET TRAIN OF THOUGHT

  • It’s nice of them to wrap up the cliffhanger of “Balance of Power” like that, even more so to make a gag out of it.
  • “There’s a saying amongst the officers: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If it’s not worth doing, give it to Rimmer.”
  • Another roast beef gag? Somebody had a fetish.
  • First appearance of Talkie Toaster, I see.
  • It’s a good sign that they’re slowly starting to bring Cat into proceedings as well. His appearance is still largely one-note, but he does provide the catalyst (no pun intended) to the plot, along with some decent bits.
  • “This is my shiny thing; and if you try to take it off me, I may just have to eat you.” Extra props to Rimmer’s fake laugh there.
  • I think I prefer Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s ‘ultimate question’ to Douglas Adams’ one.
  • Rimmer’s assessment of the pod becomes so much funnier with the added comedic irony of Lister’s revelation.
  • This episode is also noteworthy for introducing the show’s concept of an empty universe devoid of alien life. Of course the universe would gradually get less empty as the show progressed, but the lifeforms they encountered were always man-made: the GELFs, the Simulants, Legion, et al. It’s a nice antithesis to something like Doctor Who and its reliance on “aliens did it:” in Red Dwarf, any problem the team encounter was the result of man’s folly and execution. Did I say this show was pro-humanist? I might have to rethink that.
  • The little interchange between Lister and Holly about the hats always makes me laugh.
  • Rimmer’s outburst here, like any Rimmer outburst, is sheer gold.
  • So… there was another cat on board the ship this whole time? Why does that creep me out so much?
  • “That’s why he ate his own feet!”
  • The first and only time the end credits have ever been interrupted, methinks.

NOTES:

  • The series 1-8 boxset “Just the Shows” mixes up episodes 4 and 5 on the packaging, so I originally planned to write about “Confidence and Paranoia” before this episode. Silly me.