(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
If you were a metal head in the 80s, you might fondly remember a Los Angeles band named Armored Saint. They had a no-nonsense approach that featured a very heavy bottom end provided by bassist Joey Vera. Since the band split up, Vera’s kept himself pretty busy. For the past decade or so he’s been a member of Fates Warning, also lent a hand on a couple CDs by Kevin Moore’s Chroma Key project, and he provided one of the most memorable bass lines of the year so far on the O.S.I. track “Sure You Will”. He also took part in an Armored Saint reunion that happened earlier this year. If all this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Vera has just completed his second solo album under the project name A Chinese Firedrill.
A rarely used phrase these days, Chinese Firedrill means an ineffective and chaotic exercise. I would beg to differ that this project would be considered that but it’s what Joey has named it. He plays all the instruments on the disc with the exception of the drums, which were handled by Greg Studgio. There’s also some scratching in one part of the record from DJ Ben There but that’s very brief.
I thought this was going to be a much more metal sounding album before I listened to it, so I was surprised that it had more of a quirky prog edge. There’s a passing similarity to Fates Warning but I found it sounds much more like Chroma Key. This is just fine with me because I’ve really become a huge fan of this type of stuff. Although Vera is an excellent bass player, this is not an album that features a lot of flashy bass riff and solos. I think his guitar and keyboard work take more of the spotlight here than the bass.
The title track starts things off and right from the first few minutes of hearing this, I knew I was going to like it. Joey’s vocals definitely remind me of Kevin Moore, very laid back and mellow, nothing tricky or operatic. This is probably the heaviest track on the album with lots of multi-tracked guitar parts that have a Jim Matheos feel. I really like how the acoustic is mixed in with the electrics, a very nice touch. The track ends with some weird vocal effects (another cool Chroma Key similarity) that segue into the second tune. “Automatic Fantasy” is similar to “Circle” but also has some nice Eastern moments where it sounds like he’s playing a sitar. There’s a very cool break in the song that features some eerie keyboard playing and a cool acoustic/electric solo.
“Insane” is a neat track about people who are mentally challenged and features some really cool chaotic background noises. This has a nice flow that reminds me somewhat of Porcupine Tree’s more recent music. “Siúcra” features more great acoustic guitar riffing. One thing I’ve noticed while reviewing this and listening to it at the same time is how detailed everything is. It’s obvious Joey went to great lengths to perfect everything on here and the results are stunning. A few moments in the song “Never Say Never” have a nice 80s Rush influence mixed with something a little more sinister like Iggy Pop. This is one of my favorite tracks on the disc with some nice unusual moments.
The song “Grass and Stone (Ethereal)” starts out sounding like a post rock piece with some eerie droning sounds. Later on in the track it moves into a mellow Dream Theater meets Pink Floyd-like piece. There’s also a bizarre spoken word section in the middle. “Rock, Paper, Scissors” ends the album with a bang. This nine-minute track is probably the proggiest of the bunch with some cool synth parts and some hooky lines that also bring to mind Porcupine Tree.
While this one could go by mostly unnoticed by the majority of the prog rock community, it is a really good album and I found it to be a really pleasant surprise. A Chinese Firedrill is a far cry from the heavy sounds of Armored Saint but it proves that Joey Vera is a versatile artist with a style all his own.