Review – Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology – 4CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nostalgia is a thing of the past, or so one witty person once said. Although, reading progressive music websites could we have you thinking that prog fans are Living In The Past, as Jethro Tull once sang on their unorthodox album of the same name, released in 1972. A certain sector of prog fans tends to view with suspicion any album released after 1976 and, heaven forbid, anything from the eighties or beyond!

This is unfair and is not completely true, much as I love those classic albums from prog’s so called ‘golden era’, I am also open to newer music, as I am to reissues of classic, long lost, or under-appreciated albums, of which I have reviewed several on this very site.

Many of these lost gems come from the good people at Esoteric/Cherry Red, although some have come from the Rock Candy label whose remit is usually hard rock or AOR type offerings from US Bands who got lost in the mix of all that has happened in the last four decades.

This review features one of those lost gems, namely the Phenomena album from 1985. Phenomena was a project created and  by Tom Galley, the Cannock, Staffordshire younger brother of Mel Galley (the guitarist in the Midlands based band Trapeze). Mel was also heavily involved in the music behind this “concept” album, being able to call up, and recruit, his old band mate Glenn Hughes, who had been with Trapeze for their first three albums before jumping ship and taking over from Roger Glover in Deep Purple. In addition, both Cozy Powell and Neil Murray (who were both members of Mel’s then band Whitesnake) were recruited to the project, as was original Magnum keyboard player Richard Bailey and John Thomas of Budgie.

On paper, the project had the stamp of pedigree with some very well known and established musicians to carry the project forward. The album had interesting packaging with a deluxe booklet with the lyrics and the artwork of Ian Lowe’s interpretation of the songs (along with the lyrics and album credits). All this occurred on the then Bronze label home of Uriah Heep and another local hero Robin George, who also had Magnum connections. However, Bronze were in trouble financially, their golden days of Uriah Heep selling millions of albums were long past and they were struggling to make ends meet, As such, despite the huge promotional push for Phenomena, it sadly failed to make the sales expected, Robin George’s then album, ‘Dangerous Music’, suffering a similar fate.

Listening to the album again now ,nearly 40 years on, is fascinating and, yes, the music certainly stands up well and is rightly due for re-evaluation, This set comprises all three Phenomena albums, along with the ‘Anthology’ album that includes three tracks from the original album, three from the second album, ‘Dream Runner’, and four from the third, and final, Phenomena album, ‘Innervision’. In addition, there are three non-album tracks and two 12″ single mixes of Did It All For Love and Still The Night. Also, there is a booklet for each album that gives the lowdown, who plays what and the full lyrics to each album, all well presented in a sturdy clamshell box.

The music itself is prominently British heavy rock of the mid 1980’s so think Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy or Gary Moore and you’re in the right territory. What really lifts the album into something special though are the tremendous vocals of Glenn Hughes who is absolutely fabulous throughout and sings his lungs out on tracks like Still the Night and Phoenix Rising. Also very noteworthy is the demonic violin playing of Ric Sanders (latterly of Fairport Convention) on the track Dance With The Devil. It is utterly mesmerising and backed up with some muscular musical accompaniment. The last track on the album is a little different in that it is performed by a boys’ choir who wordlessly intone Latin, which gives a certain gothic nature to the track.

On listening to the album, I think I can spot where they went wrong in that the concept was not clear enough for listeners to fully grasp and so this was a factor in not really reaching the heights they had wanted to achieve. Also, there were a myriad of confusing releases from the album which, over time, diluted the album’s appeal and could be viewed as hype that was not fully realised. This was a pity as the original album had good material and performances throughout and really deserved far better than it received.

The next Phenomena album was released, again to much fanfare, in 1987, some two years after the original album. This time around they took a more Sci-Fi based storyline and plot, although, again, the concept got lost in the mix a little. This time they had, in addition to Glenn Hughes, John Wetton of Asia, Ray Gillen of Black Sabbath and members of Japanese band Bow Wow, whose guitarist and drummer came on board, as did Max Bacon of Bronz, another group whose success was limited by the collapse of the Bronze label.

The music was, again, very mid eighty’s hard rock, although John Wetton’s vocal on Did It All for Love gave the album a big boost in certain markets like Europe and South America, where it was a big hit, making the album even more successful than the first. It still stands as a fine piece of hard rock from that era, stand out tracks being Did It All For Love, Hearts On Fire, Jukebox  and No Retreat, No Surrender, on which Ray Gillen turns in a memorable performance. Again, the artwork is very suited to the album and the booklet details the saga of getting the album out. It was quite a struggle and the fact they managed it speaks volumes to the faith they had in the project, which was thankfully repaid upon release.

The third album in this set is the ‘Innervision’ album from 1993, this time the concept was far less ethereal or supernatural and was more like a gangster story. The music is more up to date, in that it sounded like a British Bon Jovi with big riffs and choruses and with a great, little known, vocalist, Keith Murrell (who had sung with Cliff Richard and Airrace, amongst others). The big star on this album was Brian May, who Scott Gorham knew and asked to play on two songs, What About Love? and A Whole Lot Of Love. The lineup may have been slimmed down but, even so, the music has fire and guts and still sounds good today, some 28 years on. I never bought this instalment as it was always expensive, so it’s good to have it in this set now. Again, the booklet tells the story behind the album and the difficulties they had in getting it released, 7 years after the second and 10 years after the first album.

Banzai sounds like a Foreigner song with some crunchy guitar riffs amidst the keyboards, the big song is What About Love, featuring the aforementioned Brian May on guitar, and this sounds truly epic with masses of backing vocals. They were trying to get Freddie Mercury to sing but, sadly, it never happened, imagine how that would have sounded! Yet again, the concept gets lost in the mix somehow but, the songs and music are exceptionally fine indeed and Keith Murrell is a fine singer who brings fire and passion to these songs, making this third instalment a real treat and an undiscovered classic album.

Having said all this, I do feel that these albums are worthy of far more appreciation than they received at the time and the additional tracks and excellent booklets provide information that makes this set very worthy of investigation. Of its time and era for certain but both marvellous and bold, in the face of many difficulties and with definite progressive moments and wonderful performances by all. In addition, the set features three previously unreleased tracks, Assassins Of The Night and Running With The Pack with Glenn Hughes and Stealing Heaven with Keith Murrell, and 12″ mixes of Did It All For Love and Still the Night.

Order the box set from Cherry Red here:

Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology, 4CD – Cherry Red Records

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