CD Review: Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel

CD Review: Red Dragon Cartel – Red Dragon Cartel
Frontiers Records
Red Dragon Cartel - S/T 2014
All Access Rating: B+

The reports from the front lines were troubling. Red DragonCartel, it seemed, had stumbled out of the gate. By most accounts, their first show together at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in West Hollywood was a train wreck, with the blame laid squarely on a singer who probably needed more rehearsal time and more rest leading up to the show and less booze the night of it.

This was supposed to be Jake E. Lee’s glorious return to rock ‘n’ roll after a 20-year absence, and all anybody could talk about was how off tune newcomer D. J. Smith was. Some good came out it, though, as Smith and the rest of the band made a renewed commitment to tightening up their performances, and since then, there haven’t been many complaints. Red Dragon Cartel seems to have righted the ship.

From the sound of their searing self-titled debut record, they knew all along what direction they wanted to go. Updating the ripping and tearing guitar work he did with Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands with slick, hurricane-force modern production, Lee has built up a potent arsenal of riffs and torrid solos in his time away that David Koresh would admire, as Red Dragon Cartel roars through 10 songs of slightly darkened, expansive post-grunge hard rock that eats dynamite for breakfast. The slashing riffs of “Deceiver,” an adrenaline rush of an opener that kicks down the door with all the subtlety of a SWAT team, give fair notice that Lee is back with a vengeance, and the snarling "Wasted" finds Lee's mushrooming guitar barking like angry dobermans who've just caught a whiff of fear, while the heavy, swaggering "Shout It Out" has an infectious, swirling nu-metal vortex of a chorus.

"Slave" is a buzzing hive of frenzied riffing, while the sludgy "War Machine" dances and stomps around a witches' cauldron stirred by Tony Iommi and the original Black Sabbath. Filter's kaleidoscopic "Take a Picture" comes to mind when the rougher cinematic ballad "Fall From the Sky" washes in, carrying with it a flood of melody, but it's the soulful "Redeem Me" that brings Red Dragon Cartel back to a more organic and earthy sense of self.

Guests like Robin Zander of Cheap Trick and ex-Iron Maiden singer Paul Di'Anno, plus former Pantera and current Kill Devil Hill bassist Rex Brown, are there for window dressing, and they only flesh out a diverse set of tracks that allows Lee's scorching fretwork to burn. Making up for lost time, Lee serves up an array of tricks that won't break new ground, but they will thrill anybody with an appreciation for six-string agility and melodic power. And in Smith, Lee has unearthed a forceful vocalist whose singing is brawny and masculine.

Chock full of big, roundhouse hooks, Red Dragon Cartel is on rare occasions clunky and derivative, but on it Lee, lured out of retirement by sod-busting bassist Ronnie Mancuso, unloads in such gripping fashion two decades of artistic frustration on anybody who will listen. Still, few may notice those slight blemishes, and everyone should lend Red Dragon Cartel an ear.
– Peter Lindblad

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