PHENOMENA – Awakening

Tom Galley’s previous offering from Phenomena bought together some great musicians, including Terry Brock, Mike DeMeo and Robin Beck. While it could be argued the vocal talent on ‘Blind Faith’ didn’t quite match the earliest incarnations of Phenomena with Glenn Hughes, Mel Galley and Cozy Powell, the album turned out extremely well.  Not a perfect record by any means, but a few of the arrangements and a couple of the featured vocalists made it a release well worth owning.

2012’s ‘Awakening’ picks up almost exactly where 2010’s ‘Blind Faith’ left off.  As you’d expect for a Phenomena record with Tom Galley at the helm, the arrangements are big (albeit occasionally old fashioned) and the array of vocalists should be enough to pull in a solid core of melodic rock listeners.

For those who’ve spent time enjoying ‘Blind Faith’, ‘Awakening’ will have an instant familiarity since a few vocalists make return appearances.  Terry Brock, Mike DeMeo and Ralf Scheepers are present and correct, as is ex-Saga man Rob Moratti.  While fans will undoubtedly welcome such familiar faces and voices back to the fold, it’s one of the “newer” faces which makes the largest contribution.  Joining the Phenomena stalwarts is Lee Small, a man who made a big impact on the Escape Music label during the few months prior to this release: firstly on Shy’s self-titled outing and then with his own ‘Jamaica Inn’ – an essential melodic rock disc, released in January 2012.  Small is lucky enough to lend his vocals to two of ‘Awakening’s ten numbers and also contribute his song writing skills to a third.

His vocal on ‘Smash It Up’ is as commanding as you’d expect. But, while Small’s voice and the good time rock riffs make it an ideal opening track musically, there’s an obvious weakness in terms of lyrical content… Even if Galley was aiming for good-time rock, Small deserved more than an overly repetitive one-line chorus.   Still, in terms of upbeat rock that never claimed to have life-changing effects, it does what it says on the tin.  On ‘How Long’, Small takes an equally powerful vocal and adds it to Martin Kronlund’s meaty guitar chops.  Since the arrangement often alternates between those riffs and vocals, it provides ample opportunity for both musicians to really shine.  While lyrically it’s simple fare – something highlighted by another lightweight chorus – overall, it’s a great track; a good example of the Phenomena “brand”.

Better still, ‘Fighter’ – bringing together the talents of Strangeways vocalist Terry Brock and guitarist Steve Newman (of melodic rock band, uh, Newman) – has a much stronger lyric, with Brock wrapping his voice around the tale of a boxer.  While much more sophisticated than most of Tom Galley’s compositions, it never errs on the side of self indulgence, as the wordiness never feels like it’s trying too hard to be clever. Brock, meanwhile, is in great voice – far better than on any of his performances on the 2010 and 2011 Strangeways releases.  It’s not entirely given over to words, though, as between the storytelling aspects, there’s still ample time for some solid harmony vocals and a great solo from Newman.  Packed into just over three minutes, it’s a top piece of old school rock, which rarely lets up from the outset.  Alongside ‘How Long’, it’s the strongest offering this time around.

Less fortunate is ‘Reality’, featuring the vocal talents of Toby Hitchcock.  Well known for his work with Pride of Lions (featuring ex-Survivor man Jim Peterik), Hitchcock has become one of melodic rock’s heroes in the twenty-first century. While his 2011 solo release ‘Mercury’s Down’ gained rave reviews and certainly wasn’t without some great tunes, his contribution here is questionable.  He over-sings everything, almost to the point where it sounds like a he’s taking the piss.  Luckily, the hugely talented Mike Slamer guests on guitars and – as most discerning melodic rock fans will be aware – Slamer always brings an element of class to his session appearances.   Even this track is no exception, since he offers an absolutely superb lead guitar break.

On the previous Phenomena release, Ralf Scheepers pulled the short straw and sang on the weakest track (his voice, in turn, rarely doing much to improve things).  With that in mind, it’s great that this time out, on ‘Gotta Move’, he sounds much better.  A driving riff lays a solid foundation, while Tommy Denander’s lead guitar fills are superb from a technical perspective.  The aforementioned co-write with Lee Small, this is most definitely a track which brings out the best in Scheepers’s heavily accented voice, although it’s meaty Euro-rock sounds may not appeal to those who like things with a more American leaning.  That said, surely most melodic rock fans would be impressed by the lead guitar duel between Denander and Christian Wolff which takes place here…

Mike DeMeo and Martin Kronlund collaborate on ‘Shake’, a track with a monster riff which promises so much and then fails to back it up with anything beyond the simplest sentiment.  It’s somewhat unsubtle, but it’s likely to get a thumbs-up from DeMeo’s loyal core of fans.  This is balanced out by ‘If You Believe’, a track featuring Chris Antblad and a gospel choir.  The music comes with a greater lightness of touch than much of the Phenomena output, resulting in a lovely melody.  Antblad’s slightly thin vocal style finds him in danger of being swamped by the choir on occasion, but nevertheless it’s one of the record’s most enduring numbers.  Elsewhere you’ll find decent performances from melodic rock cult heroes James Christian and Rob Moratti (who still sounds like man with a cartoon voice), alongside the guys from Coldspell, bringing their brand of Scandi hard rock to Phenomena for the first time.  Like so much of the material this time around, lyrically the Coldspell track (‘Dancing Days’) suffers a little for having an overly simplistic almost one-line chorus, but for those who enjoyed Coldspell’s 2011 release, it’s a track which more than hits the mark vocally.

The press release for ‘Awakening’ says that “In short [this Phenomena album is] a must”.  It’s certainly not a must.  While most of the tracks are actually quite good in some way and there are a couple of obvious standouts, Galley has written better material in the past.  Also, at around forty minutes playing time, it feels too short by twenty-first century standards – just as things appear to be getting warmed up, the disc ends.  Maybe Galley could have been better holding off for a little longer…at least until he had two or three more numbers ready to go.

The presence of Lee Small and Rob Moratti are certainly major plus points and ‘Awakening’ is far from bad on the whole, but it leaves a definite feeling of being short-changed.   If you’ve not already done so, you’d be better off shelling out for Phenomena’s superior predecessor ‘Blind Faith’ instead.   …Or maybe even for Lee Small’s marvellous 2012 release ‘Jamaica Inn’.

March 2012