After a near legendary stint as the guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne's solo band and with his own band Badlands, guitarist Jake E. Lee pretty much disappeared from the music scene. But the maniacally awesome six-stringer is now back with the new band Red Dragon Cartel and he sounds fantastic. Fear not guitar aficionados, Lee hasn't lost his ability to shred in the least. I know guitar hero is an overused phrase these days, but Lee is one who really deserves that moniker.
Musically speaking, the 11 songs on the self-titled debut album are outstanding. The material ranges from balls out electrically charged rockers to the beautiful solo piano piece (played by Lee) called "Exquisite Tenderness".
Regarding that song, the liner notes say it was the first song he ever wrote back when he started learning to be a classical pianist.
The album takes on a kind of schizophrenic identity when you factor in the makeup of the band. Joining Lee on guitars is Ronnie Mancuso on bass and keys, Jonas Fairley on drums and Darren James on vocals. However, four of the tracks feature guest vocalists and a number of other special guests appear throughout the different songs.
I know that playing live things will be focused on the foursome that make up the band, but when some of the best tracks on the disc feature other performers, aren't you just painting yourself into a corner? Especially when the song sequence on the disc alternates with your singer on a track and then a guest vocal.
The album opens with the lead single "Deceived" (video below). It blazes out from the opening gun and shows exactly how Lee hasn't lost a step. When I first saw the video, I was kind of turned off by the vocals from James, but listening to the CD, they do get better over the course of the song.
I think the vocals not being what you might've expected if you are familiar with the past singers Lee has worked with is what throws people off. James isn't BAD, just different.
The vocals on "Shout It Out" had more of a grittier feel to them, but the song itself didn't really resonate with me beyond the in your face delivery of the chorus.
As I said before, there are four guest singers on the album and they range from rock legends like Cheap Trick's Robin Zander and ex-Iron Maiden singer Paul Di'Anno to the sublimely awesome Sass Jordan.
Unfortunately, they aren't immune to the fickle whims of bitchy complaints in reviews. Di'anno ruins the song "Wasted". A cleaner vocal take without the extra verbal growl in it might done wonders to save what was musically a pretty solid track...but he just sounds awful. Yes, the title of the song dramatically sums up the potential the song had and failed to realize.
"Big Mouth" features In This Moment singer Maria Brink (with an ending guitar solo from her bandmate Chris Howorth) in a song that manages to be both plodding along AND uptempo at the same time. Sadly, the screamo style of singing from Brink kills any enjoyment.
Switching gears to focus on the good, Feeder has both Zander on vocals and his Cheap Trick bandmate, Tom Peterson, on bass. And it is such a far cry from what you know of how Robin Zander usually sounds. The lyrics are quite dark and while you do recognize the usual cut to Zander's vocal jib, it coincides with a far more edgy vibe in the vocal track at the same time. At first it kind of threw me off my game, but the song has really grown on me and I just love hearing this different version of Zander's voice.
Kill Devil Hill bassist Rex Brown appears on the brutally unrelenting "Slave". The intro to the song sounds like the opening score to a horror movie and then it just blows your eardrums out. Darren James brings the pain vocally here. This is a killer track!
It took me a minute to remember what song "War Machine" reminded me of, but after humming the music, Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots" is what I came up with. But rather than sounding like an epic rip off of a classic track, the band makes the song something all their own.
The Best Buy exclusive bonus track is called "American Dream" and it is another stand out in your face rocker.
I had trouble deciding about the song "Redeem Me". Oh, not about whether or not it is a great song or not - it is irrefutably a magnificent song. What I had trouble deciding was whether it is a good or preposterously bad thing that the best song on your debut album is a song that is sung by someone other than your lead singer.
Sass Jordan, who currently fronts the rockers S.U.N., sings a clean and straight ahead vocal on an outstandingly brilliant rocker. But what she does here also manages to put everything that comes before and after to utter shame. I can only imagine how things would've been if she'd sung all the songs.
The band's first live show was a reported epic disaster, though everyone involved is trying to walk that back now. I think nerves played a part in that and while Darren James does take a second to get used to hearing with Jake's (seen at right) blazing fretwork, he does do a really solid job on most of his songs.
The name of the band and thus the album is supposedly to pay tribute to Lee's Japanese roots. With the nod to his past there, I was particularly impressed that even after all this time away from music, Lee had a decidedly modern take on songwriting and resting on his musical laurels seems beyond him. The draw to the band is his playing, but all parts of the band need to form a tight unit or you won't have songs to keep people interested after the initial curiosity factor burns off.
And while not all the tracks here are winners, I am fully expecting to be standing in that metaphorical waiting line when the next Red Dragon Cartel album is released.
Whether you loved Jake on Ozzy's The Ultimate Sin or wanted to do a blues groove with Badlands, you'll find that the next step in Lee's musical progression (however much delayed) is a winner!
Welcome back Jake!