Badlands is a band that seemed to be at the right place and the right time. Formed by guitarist Jake E Lee upon his dismissal from Ozzy Osbourne’s camp in 1987, the group also included in its ranks lead singer Ray Gillen and drummer Eric Singer, both of whom were fresh out of brief stints with the then-struggling Black Sabbath. The group had strong industry connections on their side, and they offered a sound that fit in with rock scene conventions of the time yet still had a distinct flavor. Yet somehow their 1989 debut album has seemingly fallen through the cracks of history for all but the most diehard hard rock fans.
I would hardly call Badlands iconoclasts but their approach to bluesy hard rock was one unlike any other at the time. Plenty of hair metal bands were aiming for more ‘mature’ sounds by the late 80s; groups like Cinderella and Poison flexed their blues influences while Kingdom Come was the first of many to set themselves up for accusations of aping Zeppelin. Badlands’ take on the style feels much more authentic in comparison. The production is quite stripped down, offering very few frills and making the most of earthy tones and a somber, wintery atmosphere.
As one would expect, much of the album’s strength comes from Lee’s guitar playing. Despite the tight sounding chugs, there’s not much metal to be found as Lee spends much more time taking cues from the old blues masters. The gentle acoustics on “Jade’s Song” and “Devil’s Stomp” are smooth inclusions and I am an absolute sucker for the trickling licks that define “Rumblin’ Train.” I can only imagine how shocking his performance was to those only familiar with the manic shredding on Bark at the Moon or his glossy performance on The Ultimate Sin.
One would also be amiss to not mention the late Ray Gillen’s vocal talents. He showboats on “High Wire” and “Rumblin’ Train” without going too overboard, delivers straightforward catchiness on “Dreams in the Dark” and “Dancing on the Edge,” and occasionally ventures into softer territory without losing his grit. The Robert Plant-isms aren’t too far off from what Lenny Wolf or David Coverdale were doing around the time, but his execution is just as charismatic and arguably even more passionate.
With all this considered, it is mind-boggling how this album doesn’t have a higher profile. A combination of member conflicts and a changing landscape would’ve cut the group’s momentum short no matter what, but their exposure seems sparse for a band that was so initially successful. Rumors persist that allegations surrounding one of the members led to their label essentially erasing their work from existence, but such speculation is unfortunately inconclusive. Thankfully their legacy has found ways to live on; Lee’s new band Red Dragon Cartel regularly plays Badlands songs live and the guys in Adrenaline Mob seem to be fans if their 2013 cover of “High Wire” is anything to go by.
Thirty years later, Badlands’ self-titled debut album remains an overlooked achievement. While it is prone to getting lost in the shuffle of 80s hard rock, its bare bones blues style is naturally integrated and seemed to have aged better than many of the peers’ similar attempts. There aren’t too many in your face hits to be found, but the vibrant songwriting is elevated by electrifying musicianship. I would love to see more bands take cues from this album and I encourage anybody to check it out if they’ve never done so.
“Dreams in the Dark”
“Dancing on the Edge”