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Red Dragon Cartel - Red Dragon Cartel (Album Review)

Monday, 27 January 2014 Written by Simon Ramsay

Following his sizzling tenure as Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist in the 1980s, Jake E Lee went on to form lauded blues rockers Badlands before largely vanishing from the musical landscape. After nearly two decades in semi-retirement, he's finally re-emerged with Red Dragon Cartel, who draw upon contemporary and classic metal influences with enjoyable, albeit inconsistent, results.  

It was Lee’s old pal Ronnie Mancuso who coaxed him out of hiding and, in cahoots with producer Kevin Churkho, set the scene for Red Dragon Cartel. With Mancuso handling bass duties, vocalist DJ Smith and drummer Jonas Fairley were recruited through Lee's Facebook page.

Billed as a band effort rather than a Lee vehicle, the album’s rotating cast of vocalists undermines that intent to a degree. Smith appears on five tracks, with guest singers handling the other four, compromising the stylistic cohesion of the album and preventing the band from asserting its own identity. That said, the first three songs are magnificent.  

Deceived's vintage metal intro is a scorching nod to Ozzy's Bark At The Moon and its thunderous chorus a plutonium-laced punch to the cranium, although Smith's vocals are an acquired taste and can at times lack their own character. His shouted verses recall former Rainbow frontman Graham Bonnet, with an eerie imitation of Osbourne's semi-slurred higher register during the bridge.

When the material is strong those shortcomings are less noticeable, as proven by Shout It Out, where thudding beats pound towards a mighty hook full of funky rhythmic swagger and stomping fury. The opening trio is completed by Feeder, with Cheap Trick's Robin Zander giving his Beatles-esque vocals a bilious workout as Lee dispatches waves of bluesy licks and mystical passages with mesmerising fluency.

Unfortunately that quality isn't sustained, and while there's nothing bad about the remaining songs – many of which are pretty good - it's only on Redeem Me, featuring the ballsy roar of Sass Jordan, that they scale similar heights. Inbetween, an uneasy mixture of singers and styles brings a patchwork quilt feel to proceedings.

Former Iron Maiden snarler Paul Di'Anno adds his punky rasp to Wasted, and although suitably savage, it immediately feels like a different band. Likewise Big Mouth, with In This Moment's Maria Brink delightfully dragging Joan Jett's I Love Rock And Roll through a satanic filter.

The spectre of Lee's former employer looms large on the psychedelic metal of War Machine, nicking both the opening to Black Sabbath's War Pigs and the riff from Loner. Those familiar with the latter will almost expect to hear Ozzy's opening line as the verse kicks in.

In spite of the flaws, Lee is wonderful throughout. On Fall From The Sky (Seagull) his soloing is spectacular, lighting up a dreamy tune with unorthodox note selection and a seamless flow, while Slave's merciless riff frantically fizzes around like a bumblebee overdosed on caffeine.

Churkho's mixing and mastering also adds sizeable sonic oomph, giving Lee's classic metal sensibilities a contemporary backbone by accentuating the drums and bass in a way that recalls White Zombie's body-shaking heavy grooves. Faults aside, there is enough of Lee's old magic here to please the faithful and enough evolution to avoid being an exercise in nostalgia.

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