Cursus 123 430 – Robert Reed
The latest album by Robert Reed is quite a margin away from his usual output we’ve seen from him in the past regarding his own solo career. Instead of emulating the music of Mike Oldfield like he has done with his last 3 solo albums he’s now gone all electronica on us and is now emulating the music of the likes of Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre and those sorts. Though not to worry folks because Sanctuary IV is in the pipeline and I am sure normal service will resume soon 😁😁😁.
I have to admit that this latest album of his came as quite a shock, simply because the core behind Reed’s keyboard skills is his piano playing which is far more complex and complicated to play than the biggest majority of electronic music which involves more knob twiddling than playing skills. To be perfectly honest I would most likely die of shock if I saw Jean-Michel Jarre playing the piano 😁😁😁. Simply because his playing skills are far from as complicated as one might think.
I think most electronic music is fairly easy to play and more time is spent twiddling and tweaking things to bring out all the colours and textures more than anything else. There is an art to all forms of music and I am quite a fan of Jarre’s music and have the biggest part of his discography in my record collection. I also have many other electronic albums by the likes of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Isao Tomita. However, that is as far as it goes for me and electronic music.
I can at times go through phases regarding electronic music and there can be long periods where I simply can no longer listen to it. When I first spotted this new release by Robert Reed, it’s title of Cursus 123 430 very much had Vangelis spring to my mind and I was in two minds of whether to jump onboard and pre-order it. In the end I decided to come along for the ride. But was it worth it? Before I answer that question let’s take a look at the packaging & artwork.
Packaging & Artwork…
The both discs come in a cardboard gatefold Digisleeve that has die cut pockets on each side (as seen above) that firmly hold the discs in place. The material is on the thinner quality side of things to cut down on cost, but nevertheless is well adequate to do the job. It does not come with a booklet or contain any additional informative information and the usual linear credits are printed on the inside and back of the Digisleeve.
Overall, it’s a neat and tidy presentation and very much the same packaging Rob Reed uses for all his albums including Magenta. I pre-ordered my copy from Tigermoth Productions on the 9th of November and it arrived a week after its release. I’ve always used the record companies’ website to order his solo and Magenta albums because even with the postage and packaging it does work out slightly cheaper than Amazon.
The album cover artwork was done by Matt Rooke and it’s well fitting with the concept of earth and space that is perhaps associated with the biggest majority of electronic music. It also fits in with conceptional story that’s been tied to the album. Rook is a freelance illustrator and motion graphics designer, with 20 years design industry experience. I quite like it and he’s done a very good job of it.
The album was released in the form of 3 various physical packages to suit your pocket. It was also released as a Digital Download which is the cheapest option to get the album and is priced at £7 on Bandcamp. As far as I am aware of there is no vinyl release, although there might be a possibility of one in the future depending on how well the album sells you never know.
The cheapest of the physical packages is the one I purchased to which the CD comes accompanied with a DVD with the 5.1 mix of the album and is priced at £12 plus £1.90 postage & packing. This is excellent value for the money and I love the how Rob Reed thinks of us SURROUND FREAKS! with every album he makes.
Next up for £20 you can get the Limited Edition which comes with the same as the CD/DVD release above plus a bonus CD that contains a 19-minute Symphonic Poem version of the album along with 5 other bonus tracks. All these tracks are basically orchestral and solo piano pieces that offer you alternative versions.
To be honest I am not really sure how this is a limited edition at all, because you can purchase the bonus material on Bandcamp in the form of a digital download for £5 and the physical CD which comes in a cardboard wallet for £8 from the website.
The most expensive package was the Special Limited Edition which I believe was priced at around £22. This edition was limited and has sold out. It contained the CD/DVD & Orchestral Suite Bonus CD. Plus, it was accompanied by a 20-page companion book featuring colourful graphic illustrations by Matt Rooke and Pete Rogers that pertain to the concept story.
The Album In Review…
Robert Reed’s 4th solo album Cursus 123 430 was released on the 14th of November 2020. The album contains 10 tracks spread over an overall playing time of 55 minutes, 58 seconds. The albums title very much reminds me of the 1976 Vangelis album entitled Albedo 0.39 and its concept follows a similar vein in that its themed around space physics.
It also has a narrator and the voice behind the narration is Les Penning who he has been doing quite a lot of collaborated work with him on much of the Mike Oldfield material for quite some time now. He also wrote the story for the concept to which I will touch on later in the album tracks section of my review.
Like I mentioned earlier this is perhaps an unusual direction for Reed to go down though it was only earlier this year that he released The Empathy Machine from his Chimpan A project he did with Steve Balsamo. That album had quite an electro vibe about it and may have ignited a spark to take on an electronic project like this.
It was during a break from working on Sanctuary VI earlier this year that he decided to work on the album and like much of the music Reed writes it is inspired by earlier influences. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells had a massive influence on him which is plain to see if you have been following his Sanctuary series like I have.
The inspiration for electronic music came from his older brother and he was thinking back to the time when Jean-Michel Jarre released Oxygene and he used to lend the album off him to listen to. That is pretty much the same way I got into that album and some of the other artists who work in that genre of music.
Reed spent 6 weeks at his own studio in Wales back in July and August working on the album and went out and brought some analogue synths to make it more organic. Not knowing much about synths that do not come with presets a couple of those weeks was spent studying and learning about how to use them and get a sound out of them. Besides using a drum machine, he also threw in some orchestral percussion to beef it up and give it that Vangelis touch and feel.
One of the other things that enticed me to get this album was that it came with a DVD with a 5.1 mix. I have always had a lot of admiration for how Robert Reed takes the time to do one for almost everything he puts out and he certainly has the right head on his shoulders to do them unlike many mixing engineers who have worked in this field.
However, this is the first time I have ever experienced something quite like this from him were the stereo and 5.1 mixes have a major difference and are like chalk and cheese. I shall go into more detail at the end of my review but first let’s take a look at the DVD that comes in the package.
The DVD’s menu is pretty basic, straightforward and easy to navigate your way around. You simply point the white triangular marker to play any track or at the beginning (as seen above) to play the whole album. By default, the white triangular marker is set to “DTS Surround Mix” for you to make your choice of audio first.
There are only 2 audio soundtracks to choose from and no stereo soundtrack is available. Both are in 48K and the DTS 5.1 is the better format of the two giving you a higher quality at 1.5 Mbps. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is only 448Kbps though both sound very good.
DVD (Track Display)
Whilst listening to the album it displays the artist; album title and cover (as seen above) and it does look very nice on a big screen. Although it’s unfortunate that is all it does display throughout the whole album and not even the title changes to display the name of the tracks on the album.
The very fact that it is a still picture might be a concern leaving it on display all the time and could quite possibly burn out some of your pixels. If you have an OLED display screen it could even permanently burn the image on your screen. More thought should have been put into the making of the DVD and even having a moving picture would have helped. I would advise turning off the TV whilst listening to the album to be on the safe side.
The bonus features are short but very good and the first of them is an interview with Rob Reed talking about why he decided to make the album and the new synths he had to purchase to make it. It runs for around 7.5 minutes. Both “Man of Sight and Feathers” and “Witness” are solo piano performances of a couple of tracks from the album. These are also included on the Symphonic Poem bonus CD only here you can see him in the studio play them.
The 5.1 Mix.
I find with a lot of electronic music that a 5.1 mix can add plenty of excitement to it and it’s a genre of music that is suited and will benefit from having one in some cases. I have some excellent examples in my collection by the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk. Although I do also have some really disappointing ones by Tangerine Dream as well were the mixing engineer simply does not have a clue how to do a 5.1 mix.
However, some of the atmospheres and ambience in electronic music can also sound like a surround mix even in stereo and Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1976 album Oxygene is certainly one of them. I could also say the same for some of his other albums and for the biggest majority of albums done by Tomita. It’s perhaps even hard to say that those albums with how well they were recorded in the first place would really have any benefit from a 5.1 mix.
The stereo mix of Cursus 123 430 is not one of those albums that will breath in and out and project the music out of your speakers like those albums do. I think it’s down to that factor why this album benefits way more for a 5.1 mix and in all honesty the only way you will ever get to hear this album properly is with the 5.1 mix. Effectively the 5.1 mix brings out every detail of all the layers and tracks that were used to record the album and this mix is TOP DRAW! and easily merits a 10 out of 10 rating.
Musicians & Credits…
Written, Produced and Performed by Robert Reed. Narration Written and Performed by Les Penning. Recorded at Big Studios Wales between July & August 2020. Recording & Mixing Engineer Robert Reed. Album Cover Artwork by Matt Rooke.
Robert Reed: Keyboards & Percussion.
Les Penning: Narration.
The Album Tracks In Review…
The concept story that’s behind Cursus 123 430 does perhaps have a bit more to it than just being based around space physics and is more like a futuristic look or portentous sci-fi tale of how mankind through its years of war and industrialisation have ruined the World. It’s about interstellar ‘Watchers’ arriving on Earth through a portal to repair the planet.
The colourful companion book that came with the Special Edition outlines Les Penning’s story in more detail and his part as the narrator only briefly touches on the story. Rather than having a bigger part in the narration like Richard Burton had with War Of The Worlds this is perhaps more like the smaller role Patrick Allen had on The Planets which was also associated with Jeff Wayne and featured Rick Wakeman on keyboards. It is more of an instrumental album and musically it is mostly like a cross between Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. So, let’s now take a look at the album in more depth as I take your through its tracks.
Track 1. Erthynge.
I have no idea what the title means and through my research the only thing that I could find that refereed to it was written in Latin and was in some book titled Narcissus Englished: a study of the Book of Thel, Alastor, and Endymion and it can be found under the “Argument Of The Fable”. According to the fable from what I can make of it “Erthynge” is a form of returning to the state one was before, a bit like man turning to dust and to the ground he came from and it most likely translates to “Earth”.
This opening piece is the longest track on the album weighing in at 8 minutes, 18 seconds. It opens up with the sound of the wind being swept across the waves of the sea and some glistening Vangelis like vibes set the background for Les Penning to narrate his opening words of the story. To which I should add he does very well.
Musically it has both Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre written all over it and he has fused the two together mostly by using the vibes, synths and punctuating stabbing percussion from Vangelis and the sequencing, layered textures and drum machine from Jean-Michel Jarre.
I think it’s quite good how he’s blended the sounds of them both together to make what you have here. Though I do feel in relation to how he reworked Mike Oldfield’s material for his Sanctuary albums he might be overstepping the mark when it comes to how close he is to the original melody lines. For example, the sequencing pattern he used from Jarre’s “Oxygene (Part 2)” is as plain as the nose on your face so to speak.
Track 2. The Hawk And The Harbinger of Dawn.
From the longest track on the album to one of the two shortest tracks on the album. This short piece is played on the pipe organ and reflects upon the words spoken at the end of the previous track about the saddest darkest days. It’s very much a non-stop album and this is a bit like a fugue played at a funeral sort of thing and is perhaps used to bridge the gap in-between the tracks so to speak and does it quite well too.
Track 3. Stoneborn Watchers.
This next piece has other influences in it and in the interview on the DVD Reed did mention some of his other influences were from 80’s retro electro bands like Erasure, Ultravox and Depeche Mode for example.
To be honest I know very little about these bands because their music did not appeal to my taste and I never really paid much attention to them. About the only thing I can recall from any of them was “Vienna” by Ultravox which I thought was very good, though it was the only thing they did that stood out for my ears and take notice of.
This is quite a spritely up-tempo piece that springs into action and the only real influence I can hear in it comes from Jarre’s Rendezvous album more than anything else. It also has some sort of Bach touch and feel about it in parts too and gets rounded off by falling back into that funeral fugue played on the pipe organ from the previous track.
Track 4. The Man Of Sight And Feathers.
This is another of the lengthy tracks on the album and it’s one that goes through some nice transitional changes and is built up with power and subtlety to guide it along its path so to speak. It also allows Penning to speak a few more words and contains some more Jarre like sequencing at the beginning, though its perhaps more influenced by Vangelis with its vibes and punctuating stab like percussion. There is also a very nice synth lead break that’s verging along the lines of Pink Floyd and its quite a strong album track.
Track 5. Witness.
This next track is one of the standout tracks on the album and once again there is a Floyd feel with one of the lead synths which sounds like Richard Wright’s Kurzweil used on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond“. Though the biggest influence here is from Jean-Michel Jarre in that it draws on the swirling swooshing melody lines of “Oxygene (Part 5)” and is fused with the bossa nova beat of the drum machine on “Oxygene (Part 6)“.
Track 6. Stoneglow Warnings.
This is another of the stand out tracks on the album and my personal favourite and merits the albums TOP SPOT AWARD! It goes through some GREAT! transitional changes and once again has Jarre like sequencing and Vangelis textures and vibes. The way the sequence is built up is almost like its verging on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Les Penning gets to be a bit more effective with his voice on the track too.
I also love how effective the lead synth with the pitch bend projects from the front to rear speakers on the surround mix. It’s like it’s going right through your body and is way more effective than the stereo mix where it moves from right to left. You can feel it as well 😁😁😁.
Track 7. Stalemate.
This is quite a vibrant and pleasing piece and the Vangelis like stabbing percussion is perhaps better punctuated on this track and stands out more. Once again both his and Jarre’s influences are quite evident and you also get a few more words from Penning. It’s another really GREAT! track.
Track 8. Dust And Flowers In A Lost Eden.
The shortest track on the album weighs in at 53 seconds and is very much heavily influenced by Vangelis with both its vibes and synths. Once again it does a very good job of bridging the gap in-between the tracks just like the man himself would have done with the score for Blade Runner and it fits in with the title here and is a nice little ditty.
Track 9. Gatherings At Farewell Places.
There is perhaps a bit more of Reed’s own input into this piece however the other influences are still present especially those of Vangelis. Albedo 0.39 certainly springs to mind with not only the music but also the narration with its trajectory physics sort of thing. This is another piece that works very well effective in the surround mix and even Penning’s voice is utilised very well in the front and rear channels. It’s another of the albums highlights and has some GREAT! progression along its path.
Track 10. Erthsheelde.
The album ends off with another one of the longer tracks on the album. Once again, I have no idea what the title is supposed to be and can only presume that its “Earths Shield” spelt very badly 😁😁😁. This one has more of a Jarre influence and even though the “Watchers” mentioned in the narration could be linked to the cover of his 1978 album Equinox, there is more of an influence from his 1986 album Rendezvous here.
It’s a piece that has 3 parts to it “I. Exodus II. The Odessy of Souls III. Erthynge” although the way it transcends along its more like one piece that ends off where the album started sort of thing by returning back to it’s opening theme. It puts an end to the album very well.
To sum up Cursus 123 430 by Robert Reed. I suppose in many ways one could say that no matter what genre of music Reed decides to do in his solo career he seems to invite “plagiarism” at his door, and no doubt this album will also get plagued for it by some I dare say. It is an album where the influences of Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre are quite evident and stick out like a sore thumb.
However, where this man’s genius lies is with how he can re-shape and re-structure existing melody lines and make his own music out of them, and it is only really the sound that is more like a carbon footprint or copy and not the music itself. I personally could never accuse him of plagiarism and I particularly like how he’s sort of resurrected Mike Oldfield’s music with his Sanctuary albums.
I have to confess that this electronic adventure and path he’s chosen to go down on this new album took me a few spins to appreciate it and like I mentioned earlier there is a major difference between the stereo and 5.1 mixes and they are like chalk and cheese in comparison. To be honest I have never encountered anything like this before on any of his recordings and Rob Reed is not only capable of doing very good stereo mixes, but he’s also has the ability to do very good 5.1 mixes which is a field that only a few minute engineers are able to do very well.
On the day the album arrived it was a busy day so I could not get to hear the 5.1 mix that day and I ripped the CD onto my computer and gave it a couple of spins in the headphones. I can honestly say I was ready to kick this album in the teeth and slag it right down.
The following day I played the 5.1 mix and I had nothing but praise for the album and I was hearing tons of things that do not project very well at all in the stereo mix. Most of which is the layering of the sounds he used. I also played the CD on my hi-fi through the loudspeakers just to check that nothing went wrong with the ripping process on my computer and once again the album said nothing to me.
Let me just stress that there does not appear to be anything wrong with the stereo mix as far as I can tell. However, it does sound very empty in comparison to the 5.1 mix and is missing loads of detail. Listening to this album in stereo it would be lucky to get 4 out of 10. It’s got to be the most extraordinary thing I have ever come across and in general I can listen all his solo and Magenta albums in stereo and 5.1 and enjoy them.
The difference is that MASSIVE! that it’s going to be very difficult for me to give this album the right rating at the end of my review. I generally do rate albums on how well the material is written and comes across to me as a whole. In general, the 5.1 mix is really only an added bonus but it’s like there are two different languages here and they are not speaking the same to me at all.
To conclude my review of Cursus 123 430 by Robert Reed. I do feel that the concept and the written material holds up very well. However, I do feel the only way you will ever truly appreciate this album is by playing the 5.1 mix simply because so much detail is lost in the stereo mix and it simply cannot project or be heard properly with how it comes across. I have played the stereo mix a good few time now and have sort of come accustomed to hearing the album this way and for those who only play the stereo mix and have not heard the surround mix I do not see it presenting you with a problem after a good few spins.
Though I will stress that both mixes really are like chalk and cheese and if you are a surround FREAK! like myself, this 5.1 mix is to die for and is very much a SURROUND FREAKS PARADISE! It’s that exciting it will keep you coming back for more. So, in answer to my question of was it worth it? The answer has to be YES!
To be honest I would not say this body of work is very strong and it’s far from a solid album regarding the written material. However, it does hold up very well like I said, it also flows very well throughout and my personal highlights from the album are “Stoneglow Warnings“. “Witness” and “The Man Of Sight And Feathers“.
Where I praise this album more than anything is for its surround mix and this is an album that I would highly recommend for SURROUND FREAKS! He’s done the bees knees with it and it’s highly addictive and up there with some of the very best surround mixes out there. Considering I myself no longer listen to electronic music that much these days this 5.1 mix is that good that it’s made this one of my GOTO! albums. It’s certainly not going to win the progrock album of the year but if there is an award for the best surround mix of the year this would most likely walk away with it.
A Surround Freaks Heaven…
The CD track listing is as follows:
01. Erthynge. 8:18.
02. The Hawk And The Harbinger of Dawn. 1:19.
03. Stoneborn Watchers. 5:24.
04. The Man Of Sight And Feathers. 8:07.
05. Witness. 4:39.
06. Stoneglow Warnings. 6:31.
07. Stalemate. 5:05.
08. Dust And Flowers In A Lost Eden. 0:53.
09. Gatherings At Farewell Places. 7:34.
10. Erthsheelde. 8:08.