The reports from the front lines were troubling. Red Dragon Cartel, 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 values, 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 itself.

Guests like Robin Zander of Cheap Trick and ex-Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno, not to mention former Pantera and current Kill Devil Kill bassist Rex Brown, are there for more than window dressing, and they only flesh out a diverse set of tracks that allow Lee’s scorching fretwork to burn. Lee is making up for lost time here, serving up an array of tricks that won’t break any new ground, but they will thrill anybody with an appreciation for six-string agility and powerful melodies. And in Smith, Lee has unearthed a forceful vocalist whose singing is brawny and masculine.

Chock full of roundhouse hooks, Red Dragon Cartel is on rare occasions clunky and derivative, but Lee, lured out of retirement by the band’s sod-busting bassist Ronnie Mancuso, has two decades of artistic frustration to unload on anybody who listen and he does so in such gripping fashion that few may notice those slight blemishes. Everyone should lend Red Dragon Cartel an ear.

Label: Frontiers Records