MERV SPENCE – Phenomena Recovered

When you think about musicians associated with classic rock bands, the name Merv Spence is unlikely to be one of the first that’ll spring to mind. In fact, there are several hundred vocalists that’ll be part of the fan consciousness before this Irish vocalist even gets a look in. …And it’s with good reason. He first made inroads into a career in 1982 when he replaced Pete Goalby in Trapeze, but that association imploded by the end of the year when guitarist Mel Galley left to join Whitesnake, putting an end to a great band. Spence recorded an album with Trapeze that year, but it remains unreleased. He later joined Wishbone Ash, an association which was again brief, but yielded one album – 1988’s ‘Raw To The Bone’. By that point in their career, Wishbone were past their best and, as such, it was a release that was only really heard by the die-hard fans.

By 1992, Spence had reunited with Galley as a member of Phenomena, a rock band with a revolving cast, but as featured bass player and backing vocalist on ‘Phenomena III’ he played second fiddle to Galley and Airrace vocalist Keith Murrell. That didn’t stop him buying the rights to the Phenomena back catalogue and re-recording bits of it in the mid 90s, however, and by the end of the decade, several Phenomena tracks had emerged on a Spence solo record (released under the name O’Ryan) and on discs credited to Phenomena Project.

By 2023, Spence was still milking his brief associations with the Galley project. ‘Phenomena Recovered’ brings together various Phenomena related tunes re-recorded by Merv and his band. With reworked material from the first three albums featured – not just those songs on which Spence originally played – the album’s track selection presents a nice, broad overview of what made Phenomena enjoyable back in the day. It’s also mostly been repackaged from his 1995 solo release ‘Initiate’ and rebranded to further cash in on his links with the Phenomena brand. Since few people heard or cared about ‘Initiate’ back in the day, that’s Merv’s prerogative – he owns the material, after all – but…is it any good?

It’s far from brilliant, but occasionally shows signs of something enjoyable. The recordings, understandably, update some of the more 80s-centric sounds of the original cuts in places, but cheapen them in other ways.‘Still The Night’, used to lead off this collection, opens with a wash of keys and a Spanish guitar motif that compliment each other well, and as the main melody hits, the combination of bass and keys is much warmer than on the Phenomena recording. Merv’s voice adopts a huge, soulful cry, and is bigger than expected, but not really a match for Glenn Hughes, even though the melody remains resolutely Glenn’s. As things progress, it becomes clear that Merv is by far the best thing about the track. From decent beginnings, a cheap, programmed drum sound starts to grate, and although it sounded quite warm initially, the bass sound falls a little flat beyond the first chorus, actually also sounding like the product of a cheap-ish synth program. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that ‘Still The Night’ remains a decent AOR workout, and for those who’ve not heard it in a while, it’s a reminder of a brilliantly written and arranged number, even if the execution here is left wanting.

More huge AOR fills ‘What About Love?’ (originally from Phenomena III: Innervisions’), and again, the cheap drum machine’s sound half kills the recording, but both Spence’s vocals and Huwie Lucas’s lead guitar work are rather enthusiastic. Lucas, in particular, grabs a hold of his role and sounds great during the second half of the recording, dropping in some busy lead runs that blend various melodic hard rock chops with a pleasingly bluesy tone. In fact, although it’s rather different to the original recording’s slightly dirty sound, it works almost as well. Never quite well enough to completely detract from a mechanical, programmed rhythm section – surely Spence knew bassists and drummers for hire in 1995? Or could’ve played bass himself?! – but, credit where it’s due, Lucas makes a sub-standard cover tune shine in the right places. Those programmed elements sound worse on a re-worked ‘Phoenix Rising’ reducing the bulk of the track to the level of a synth-based demo, but luckily, Merv offers a vocal huge enough to sell what was once a great song. His range here is broad enough to tackle one of the bigger Hughes tunes within the Phenomena catalogue, and a choir of backing vocals are on hand to bolster a very theatrical hook. With a full band in tow, this could’ve been one of this collection’s greatest tunes, rather than a cheaply rattled out cover, almost karaoke style. It’s a shame that a lack of thought and small budget got the better of Spence here.

Beyond a frankly horrible drum sound, ‘A Whole Lotta Love’ offers some musical respite when Lucas latches onto some big chords, crashing through a mid-tempo AOR tune with a massive confidence. Not to be outdone, Merv steps up with one of his biggest performances, easily curling his pipes around an old Keith Murrell vocal and pushing it further into the realms of something that sounds as if it were written with Glenn Hughes in mind. The backing vocals adopt the same choir like approach of ‘Phoenix Rising’, and in doing so, make an old AOR tune sound as if it would work in a stage musical, and even if this doesn’t quite have the same sheen and musical pull as the 1992 version, it’s certainly commendable enough. That’s more than can be said for the mauling of ‘It Must Be Love’, which Merv reduces to an overwrought dirge. His vocal power is still strong, but there’s something about his overly loud approach that irks before too long. In fairness, it isn’t so far removed from Max Bacon’s equally theatrical recording from 1987, but the original presented the shamelessly huge vocal against a pleasingly shiny AOR keyboard giving melodic rock fans something familiar to cling on to. This replaces the very 80s sounds with a bright piano and should be better for it, but that just makes it all sound like a cast off from a second rate stage musical. A track to spin a couple of times, but skip on most subsequent listens.

A strong rendition of the always brilliant ‘Did It All For Love’ provides a great showcase for a great voice, and the marriage of enthusiastic vocal and bright guitar lines waste no time in selling a timeless pop rocker. The original’s Asia-tastic chorus more than shines, and layered vocals do a great job in lending the main melody a great feel, and equally shiny piano parts and a crisp acoustic guitar solo contrasts the melodic rock with something a touch more complex. Even with the rhythm section supplied by a karaoke disc, its origins as a genre classic never feel too far away. On the stylistic flipside, Merv shows how well he can handle the tough stuff when he and Lucas go all out on a rather chunky ‘Stop!’, complete with dirtier guitar work and gruff vocals. Spence manages to make the rock vocals of Ray Gillen sound more like something that should’ve been a Graham Bonnet number, but there’s a rough charm in his performance throughout, whilst Lucas drops in some great melodic metal riffs, ensuring the track has a real power even in these less capable hands. Equally rocky, a revisited ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’ provides an equally good showcase for Merv, and even the programmed rhythms aren’t misplaced on this track, since the sharp edged rocker actually plays quite closely to the techy melodic rock sound of 1987. As with so many of these tracks, you won’t find anything that improves on the original take, but it’s good to hear Spence giving his all throughout.

Joining the ten cuts from ‘Initiate’, this collection features ‘Slave’ – one stray track from The Phenomena Project’s 1993 release – which also suffers from drum machine overload, but has a pleasing smoothness via the keys and vocals, making it sound like a hard rock take on an old Cutting Crew number in a couple of places, and a couple of newly recorded tracks for 2023. In keeping with this album’s theme, the two new tunes also revisit the Phenomena universe, and show that Spence’s vocals haven’t lost anything in the intervening years. He’s still not hired a rhythm section, regrettably, but ‘Rock My Soul’ sounds great replayed as a semi-acoustic jangle, with a more organic feel than the 1992 cut, which clung onto a then dated AOR sheen. The combo of bright guitar work and a man still capable of hitting some big notes more than gives this hit and miss collection a very positive end, despite the faux Celtic jiggery of ‘Dance With The Devil’ still being more of an acquired taste. There’s nothing awful about the re-recorded ‘Dance’, but there’s nothing outstanding either; it’s just there, reminding everyone of one of Phenomena’s less impressive tunes, which in its new clothes still sounds average at best.

As good as bits of this might be on its own merits (‘A Whole Lot of Love’, ‘Stop!’ and ‘Did It All For Love’ hold up despite their obvious limitations, and ‘Rock My Soul (2023) suggests that Spence still has talents worth sharing), the elephant in the room needs to be addressed: why would all but the most forgiving fan want to listen to Merv’s low budget tracks, when there are recordings featuring vocals by John Wetton, Glenn Hughes and Max Bacon close at hand? Why would people choose to listen to this instead of the recordings with contributions from legendary guitarists Brian May and Scott Gorham? They likely wouldn’t, and that’s the main problem here. It takes more than a great voice to make an album work, and much like ‘Initiate’ before it, ‘Phenomena Recovered’ just seems to…exist. The Phenomena inspired artwork makes it looks better and, in some ways, it feels a bit more coherent than the original ‘Initiate’ by excising a couple of non-Phenomena tracks and flying in a couple from elsewhere, but it’s not enough to give a hearty recommendation – especially when there’s so much other great music in the world, newly released, repackaged, or otherwise. Even with a few sparks of gold, this is for die-hard fans only.

July 2023