Saturday, January 11, 2014

Red Dragon Cartel-Red Dragon Cartel

Frontiers Records

"If you don't recognize the band name right off the bat then don't worry. You're not alone.". Those were the words I had written down as an intro when I first sat down to write this review weeks back. Or was it a month now? Eh, either way I had started working on this one a L-O-N-G time back when my PR contacts asked if I could hold off on it until it was a little closer to the album's actual release date. Sure enough I did. And you know what? Yep, life got in the way and so on and so forth meaning I'm now late on this one! Figures right? But, here it is regardless and by now I'm willing to bet that the bulk of our readers already have heard that this is guitarist Jake E. Lee's new band. That's right, the same Jake E. Lee that played with  Ozzy Osbourne and the same Jake E. Lee that played in Badlands has finally returned. Prior to even hearing this album for the first time in it's entirety (hearing only sound-bites and samples online) I heard the various comments about how Red Dragon Cartel couldn't work as it would not have a vocalist as strong as the late great Ray Gillen. Here's the thing though (or at least what I'd say to those kinds of early critics). There's no denying the great chemistry that Jake E. Lee and (the one-time Black Sabbath member) Ray Gillen had. Badlands was indeed awesome. No one is going to argue that. But, he's (sadly) no longer with us and today is a new day and Red Dragon Cartel is a new creation that should be given a fair shot based on it's own merits. As it's been some time since we last heard from Jake E. Lee (He's largely been on a self-imposed exile from the music business since the mid-nineties after all!) one might expect that he would sound "rusty". And yet that's the farthest thing from the truth when it comes to this self-titled release! Lee's playing still is still incredible and he brings out the best in his cohorts and the album's numerous "guests". As for the "official" band we have Lee on guitar, noted session musician/composer/producer Ronnie Mancuso on bass, Jonas Fairley of the stoner/doom metal band Black Betty on drums and newcomer Darren James Smith on vocals.  Ronnie Mancuso, who had previously composed and produced for Beggars & Thieves, ended up co-producing  "Red Dragon Cartel" with Lee (under the pseudonym R. Bernard Mann) with Kevin Churko (Ozzy Osbourne, Five Finger Death Punch, Rob Zombie, Hinder, In This Moment). being brought in to mix and master the band's debut release. Sound-wise the result is most certainly impressive and the effort of all involved with this project simply cannot be understated. With that said let's turn our attention to the actual music that is found within said debut-album. If I had to use one word to describe "Red Dragon Cartel" it would be "diverse", but something like that should be expected when you consider the vast-array of characters who were brought in to lend a helping hand. We'll get to that in a second though as we really should start at the beginning. On opener "Deceived" freshly-recruited lead vocalist D.J Smith pulls off his best Ozzy Osbourne impression making one wonder if he fronted a tribute-band prior to winning the coveted spot in Red Dragon Cartel. While you could argue that it's all a mere coincidence, what with Jake E. Lee's prior connection to Black Sabbath's current vocalist and all, it still comes off as a bit strange. After all there were "over a thousand submissions" (between seeking a new vocalist and a new drummer for this band) so hiring the one that sounded the most like Ozzy Osbourne must have been on Jake's mind or something! No, not really. But it still comes off as weird to me. Just listen to the Black Sabbath-like "War Machine" and you'll hear what I mean! Anyway, straight-up heavy metal is the name of the game on said opening number ("Deceived") and the follow-up cut "Shout It Out". After those two cuts though the "guests" kick in and all bets are off! "Feeder" features Cheap Trick's Robin Zander of all people and sounds like a cross between Zander's own band and Enuff Z'Nuff (a band that incidentally Jake E. Lee played with very briefly). And speaking of  Enuff Z'Nuff,  "Fall From The Sky (Seagull") bears a striking resemblance to the "Fly High Michelle" bunch. Before anyone goes running though we get some major shake-up in the form of "Wasted". Featuring the always entertaining Paul Di’Anno (ex-Iron Maiden vocalists for all of you youngsters out there) this is one hard-edged number that could "quietly" pass for modern metal while also reminding listeners of some of the quirkier sides of nineties heavy metal. "Slave" is much the same way in that it seems as if it wants to combine older heavy metal with the vibe of modern metal. The thing is it does work on a level and that's thanks to lead vocalist D.J Smith's gritty and forceful delivery. As the album unfolds his vocals do have a way of growing on you and making you wonder if Jake E. Lee really did know what he was doing when he tapped this young UK-born lead vocalist. Meanwhile "Big Mouth", which is a crunchy, barroom hard rock number that shows off Lee's vast ability with the six-string, has Maria Brink (In This Moment) taking charge of the mic while "Redeem Me" has Sass Jordan doing the same. Both cuts end up showcasing Lee's great style of playing more then anything else, but "Redeem Me" features much better lead vocals overall. It's also one the albums stronger cuts as A) Sass Jordan brings raw sexuality to "Redeem Me" whereas Maria Brink is tolerable at best and B) The chemistry between Jake E. Lee and Sass Jordan is beyond obvious making you wish that the two of them would work together more often. Oh well and hell. Anyway, other guests on this album (at least in instrumental roles) include the likes of Kill Devil Hill's bassist Rex Brown (also of Pantera and Down of course), Brent Fitz and Todd Kearns (Slash's Conspirators) and Scott Reeder (Kyuss and The Obsessed). Who plays what on which track though is not spelled out in the notes that accompanied this promo so I'll leave that little bit on information up to all of you as homework. With the aptly-titled instrumental "Exquisite Tenderness" finishing things off  on the right note I'd argue the fact that Jake E. Lee's latest venture is a success! Sure, there is room for growth within the ranks of  Red Dragon Cartel, but considering how long Jake E. Lee has been away from the game and the fact that this is just the group's debut album it's hard to find much fault in a release like this! Hopefully fate will be on his side with this band as Jake E. Lee deserves a measure of success. Let's hope that "Red Dragon Cartel" is just the first in a long line of releases for this new hard rock/heavy metal act.

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