There was a time when Jake E. Lee was on top of the world. He was a huge star while playing in Ozzy Osbourne's band, and then when he started the cult favorite Badlands. I must admit that while Jake is one of the biggest names in guitar to have emerged from the 80s, I am not familiar with most of his career. Not being a fan of Ozzy in the slightest, I couldn't tell you anything about Jake's time in that revolving door, and I have probably only heard two Badlands songs in all the time I have known of their existence. Suffice it to say, I approach Red Dragon Cartel, Jake's first new musical output in many a year, with an open mind and no preconceived opinions.
Within the first few seconds of the album, there's a sense of timelessness, in that it sounds as though the 80s never disappeared. The riff is classic metal all the way, and the guitar tone bears more than a passing resemblance to the shrill tone Randy Rhodes made famous. It's not a sound I can say I was ever a fan of, but it is a counter-agent to everything modern rock and metal has become, with bite and brightness that makes the record sound more inviting than a modern approach would allow.
“Deceived” opens the album in fine form, a solid single with a nice solo from Jake, and a strong hook from singer DJ Smith, who is able to channel various singers from the olden days as the album progresses. At moments he sounds like a hair metal icon, at others a modern gruff singer, and when he draws out a note, he also manages to sound quite a bit like Ozzy.
He is overshadowed by some of the guest stars on the album, notably Cheap Trick's Robin Zander, who takes center-stage on “Feeder”, and shows why he is one of the most underrated singers in rock history. The song itself is, like the preceding “Shout It Out”, a modern-edged number that pounds without finesse, but Zander's voice is unmistakeable as his own, something I can't necessarily say about the band.
What the album lacks is a real identity. Between Smith's varying performance, and the roster of guest stars on hand, there's not much of an opportunity for Red Dragon Cartel to solidify around any specific sound as their own. The album winds up not holding together as anything but an outing for Jake E. Lee, which is expected, but disappointing. Instead of feeling like the beginning of a new band, which the name would imply, it almost sounds like a jukebox of hits produced by other bands, filtered through the guitar sound of Jake.
There are good songs on the album, to be sure, but the overall project doesn't live up to expectations. Songs like “Deceived”, “War Machine”, and “Fall From The Sky” are solid, melodic rock songs, but they don't constitute enough of the album. Too much of the material is concerned with being up to the moment, a modern rock approach that doesn't do Jake any favors. His style of playing would be a welcome change of pace in the rock world, and I think a more nostalgic record would have been a resounding success. By focusing so much on modern sounds, and with those songs featuring a noticeable absence of melody, the record bogs down when it should be kicking into gear.
Jake sounds great throughout the record. There's a reason he's a guitar hero, and his playing is uniformly excellent, but the songs don't do him justice. He deserved a better platform upon which to stage his return, and while there are elements of Red Dragon Cartel I like, there's not an entire record moving in the right direction. It's an acceptable return from exile, but I was expecting much more from a legend.