Notes from Off-Peak City

I’m writing this shortly after the release of Betrayal at Club Low, the latest game from the indie developer Cosmo D. By the end of this essay I will have played it: an exciting thing, because every new Cosmo D game depicts another corner of magnificent, scenic Off-Peak City. It’s common enough to see a world develop over multiple video games. It’s rarer to see this happen with a world that’s almost entirely the product of one person’s dreams and preoccupations. As a fictional world, Off-Peak City isn’t governed by the traditional tenets of worldbuilding: history, laws, etc. “Lore.” Instead, it gets its consistency from its unmistakable atmosphere and a handful of recurring reference points. You know it’s Off-Peak City because of the music, the architecture, the way people talk, the way images look, the board games, the great stone faces, the pizza. You may not understand what’s going on. But actually you do, because the understanding is in the looking and the listening. 

I really adore Cosmo D’s work. The Norwood Suite in particular is a game I’ve replayed many, many times. When we talk about a game being replayable, sometimes what we mean is that the game changes significantly on a second or third playthrough. We say this as if movies aren’t rewatchable in spite of being the same every time. I find Cosmo D’s games rich, immersive, and satisfying. So, before I crack into Betrayal at Club Low, I’m going to revisit the catalogue and make some notes as I go. I’m not aiming to exhaustively annotate these games, and I don’t really have an argument I’m trying to make. I’m just going to take another stroll through these beloved old streets and hallways and point out a few of the things that fascinate me the most. Consider this a field guide to the world of Cosmo D: a tour led by a fellow traveler who shares Cosmo’s obsession with music, his love for the surreal, his irresistible impulse to put his obsessions on display, and perhaps his nagging sense that this impulse may be shallow. 

Cosmo D has released five games at the time of writing: 

  • Saturn V, an early experiment that’s very short and simple
  • Off-Peak, a short freeware title
  • The Norwood Suite, his first commercial game
  • Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1, the most polished of his first-person adventure games
  • Betrayal at Club Low, a third-person RPG

(A quick note here that these games are unspoilable in my opinion, but many will differ on this. Full spoilers ahead for all five games. More to the point: if you haven’t played these games, this may be a challenging read.) 

So, let’s begin our tour a billion kilometres away from Off-Peak City, orbiting another world altogether.

Saturn V (2014)

In 2013, while nursing a leg injury, the cellist and electronic musician Cosmo D started making a game. Naturally, the impetus was music. Saturn V is an illustration of the song of the same name by Cosmo’s experimental dance band Archie Pelago. It presents you with a simple, three-floor museum space to explore. As you do, different facets of the title song drift in and out of the mix. When you’re done, you can simply hit Esc to close the app. There is no ending in Saturn V, no confirmation that you’ve finished the experience you were meant to have. Narrative is absent here, and the only character present is you. You’re left to wonder about who put all this together, for what purpose, and how it all came to be orbiting the planet Saturn, visible through the massive skylight over the top floor. 

Cheap ass accommodations. Not even a view of the rings.
D’OOOH

The orbiting exhibition contains many surprising things. Period maps of New York and Brooklyn. A Pringles can: sour cream and onion. Homer Simpson is here, three-eyed and courting a cease-and-desist. Near the entrance, you’re greeted with something I thought was the box art from an old edition of Turbotax, but which is in fact the poster for a Brooklyn-based DJ night. Around a corner you’ll find a rehearsal space, where Debussy’s Sonata For Flute, Viola and Harp sits on a trio of music stands. (I’m listening to this piece as I write. It’s C-tier Debussy in my opinion, but even C-tier Debussy is worth your time. He didn’t write much chamber music, so fill your boots. This recording is good.) Oddly, there is no flute present in the exhibition. There is a recorder. Perhaps somebody attempted to play the Debussy sonata on that. Perhaps that’s why this place is deserted. 

Don’t get me wrong, the recorder is a beautiful instrument.

A generous assessment of this exhibition would be to look at it as a sort of mood board. But taken that way, it doesn’t amount to much. Really, it’s an assertion of identity, cobbled together through things Cosmo D and his bandmates enjoy. Board games. Craft beer. Fashionable music (and also Debussy). It illustrates the modern tendency to define ourselves by what we consume, rather than what we produce. 

The top floor of the museum ceases to be a museum altogether. Its three rooms contain a dancefloor, a plush living space, and a desk with a mixer and a computer running a DAW. What is this place? Did an Off-Peak City malcontent launch a satellite? Is this somebody’s off-world live/work space? A bachelor pad, for somebody who requires more distance from the city than the Hotel Norwood affords? 

This is a ridiculous exercise, what I’m doing right now. It’s foolish to try and establish the canonicity of Saturn V, because it’s foolish to even consider it alongside Cosmo D’s later work. Comparing The Norwood Suite with Saturn V is like comparing a feature film with a MySpace page. Nevertheless, like all false starts, it tells us something about its creator. To a degree, each one of Cosmo D’s games is another Saturn V: another digital space in which to exhibit his tastes.

Off-Peak (2015)

A year later, Cosmo D’s second game gave us our first real glimpse into his emerging fictional world. This game is also built around an exhibition space full of things Cosmo likes, but there’s an intermediary between Cosmo and his creation now. Saturn V was built specifically to reflect the personalities in Archie Pelago, and the sensibility of Cosmo D himself. This time, the developer has punted some of the responsibility onto a fictional character: the curator of the exhibition you enter when you boot up Off-Peak

Oh, we get it.

In Off-Peak you wander through a train station managed by “a born tycoon” named Marcus. Marcus presides over the tracks from a raised lookout, flanked by palm trees, bodyguards, and two cows he strokes like trained tigers. There aren’t very many people milling about on Marcus’s premises. It’s off-peak hours, after all. One suspects it’s off-peak hours forever at this particular train station. You’re told that only the extremely wealthy can afford to travel through here. Really, the trains aren’t the point. The point of this place is the cluster of niche merchants who’ve set up shop here with Marcus’s imprimatur. The passengers on these trains are the sort of people who can keep a merchant afloat for two months with the purchase of a single, exorbitantly-priced vinyl record. This is the sort of place where a struggling musician comes to put their unused sheet music up for consignment where it can be sold to the weekend warriors, the easy marks among the wealthy commuters.

Video games are about wish fulfilment.

The good news is, you’ve got a shot at boarding the next train. All you have to do is find the eight pieces of a torn-up ticket, destroyed by a lap steel player in an act of self-sabotage. As you search, you discover that Marcus’s aesthetic is curiously similar to the one we witnessed in orbit around Saturn. There’s a lot of craft beer and board games. Crates of vinyl. Miles Davis. Sun Ra. There’s a copy of Laaraji’s hammered dulcimer masterpiece Day of Radiance here, which delights me every time.

The accoutrements of classical music are strewn about everywhere. One thing I’ve learned from going to music school, being a record collector, and working in classical music radio is that different groups of people look at classical music from such dramatically different angles that they’re not even really talking about the same thing. There’s the classical music people know by osmosis (The Four Seasons, the Queen of the Night’s aria, Also Sprach Zarathustra). There’s the stuff that the enthusiasts love and tend to assume everybody knows, but they don’t (the Beethoven late quartets, Monteverdi, Peter Grimes). And then there’s the music that is familiar to everybody who’s ever gone to music school, but which only musicians care about. It’s this last category that predominates in Marcus’s domain. As a lapsed trumpeter, I was retraumatized by the sight of Jean-Baptiste Arban’s method book just sitting innocently on a shelf in a video game. Likewise for the Aritunian and Hummel trumpet concertos: works that everybody who played the trumpet, or knew a trumpeter in university knows very well, but which are miles outside the repertory. (Deservedly so in the Aritunian’s case. It’s dreadful, albeit fun to play. The Hummel rules.

This is a real piece of music by Baude Cordier. You learn about it in music school when they teach you about “eye music,” which is called that because it’s also fun to look at.
I used to tell people my favourite operas were Wozzeck and The Magic Flute, just to fuck with them.

Some of the people in this train station are flat-out insufferable. The ramen vendor is a former violist, who waxes violently poetic about how his new life cooking ramen is just like playing in an orchestra. And don’t get me started on the sheet music salesman. He can’t read music, but he knows what will sell. Most people here are trying to be Marcus. They’re scraping by, but they’re just one lucky break from transforming their own exquisite taste into a chic capitalist bonanza. There’s only one sympathetic character in this whole station. She gives away stale cookies in the subway. “I don’t care about fancy beer or personality pizza or tricky card games,” she says. Here, far from Marcus’s gaze, is the one person who recognizes the slightly sordid quality of this whole enterprise: art, repurposed as a lifestyle brand. She’s the figure who keeps Off-Peak from becoming a self-congratulatory ode to connoisseurship, a celebration of extravagant commerce. 

Am I hopelessly old school, to side with this person so emphatically? Naïve, perhaps? I suspect Cosmo D, who put in years as a gigging musician, has a more nuanced perspective on this than I do. His games consistently deal with the relationship between art and commerce, and the decisions that artists have to make for financial reasons. But the forces of commerce are not purely malignant in this universe, nor are the artists entirely virtuous. 

Marcus is one of two concentrations of power in Off-Peak. There’s also a circus passing through. They’re a big deal in these parts: the station entrance is lined with posters featuring trapeze artists and tigers, emblazoned with the Polish word for circus, “cyrk.” You learn about the Circus in dribs and drabs. They employ giants, and mistreat them grievously. They’ve got some sort of arrangement with the city. They have a lot of money, but they hire bands to tour with them and pay in “exposure.” Giants drink for free at the station bar, because the Circus pays their tab. It’s said their leader passes through the station at the same time every day. Red hair, orange dress, surgical mask. Can’t miss her. 

Her name is Murial, and she is to this game what the escape key was to Saturn V. Once you’ve finished your explorations, reassembled your ticket and–if you’re any fun at all–stolen as many records, music books and pizza slices as you can get your sticky fingers on, it’s time to board the train. Marcus stops you. That ticket isn’t meant for you, and it’s very expensive. Besides, you’re a thief, probably. The only thing for it is to enter into indentured servitude and work off your debts behind the ramen counter, like Conway at the distillery in Kentucky Route Zero. Enter Murial, holding a glowing white stag head. You’ve seen one of these before; it teleported you some distance. And it does the same now, as you bamf suddenly from the train station into a rowboat with Murial and three triplets who’ve been watching you this whole time. Murial welcomes you to the Circus.

I’ve heard this line in my head every time I’ve walked into a pizza joint since 2015.

There’s a lot in this game that isn’t fully explained. Part of that is a tease, that more will be revealed in the future. (Off-Peak’s final screen is a promotion for The Norwood Suite.) But I think it’s a mistake to regard these games as mysteries or riddles. I don’t really think it’s fun or enlightening to try and render them down to a single, stable, internally consistent narrative interpretation. Cosmo D’s later games become increasingly concerned with narrative and continuity, but Off-Peak functions best as a gallery show, with its various contents speaking to each other in abstract terms. In that sense, it is a much more successful exhibition space than its predecessor. 

So. You’re in a rowboat with Murial. She doesn’t bring it up immediately, but she’s got a job for you at an old friend’s place. 

The Norwood Suite (2017)

The Hotel Norwood is a crumbling gaiety, a haunted funhouse and pilgrimage site for the overambitious and fanatical. Once upon a time, it was a residence and base of operations for Peter Norwood, a pianist and composer with a cult of personality that has endured long past his mysterious disappearance in 1983. Now, it is a poorly-run hotel whose main clientele consists of Norwood acolytes and young people who arrive there for the ongoing dance party that one DJ Bogart has been throwing in the basement for nearly a year. 

(Yes, this is a story about a long-vanished classical musician and a presently ubiquitous DJ, which sounds like the setup for a story about how the old ways were better. Mercifully, it isn’t: that whole notion is so foreign to this game that it doesn’t even consciously subvert that idea. It just cheerfully ignores it altogether and treats all forms of musical endeavour as potentially equal.) 

You arrive at the Hotel Norwood on an errand for Murial, blue-haired now, like Oscar the Grouch turning green in season two of Sesame Street. The details of your job are hazy, but your gameplay objective is clear: you must simply explore this place. Take in the sights at this sprawling old house, just like in Gone Home or Resident Evil. (The Hotel Norwood shares the dramatic central staircase of both.) Inevitably, you will eventually have to Collect Five Things, or however many piano keys and costume pieces there are lying around. But for now, just learn about the people who are here. Learn what’s going on at this hotel.

“Wigor Hall” feels like half a joke to me.

It’s easier than you might expect. Your character in The Norwood Suite is entirely nondescript. In Off-Peak, people occasionally recognized you. Marcus had seen you come through before. You had a routine, and a past. But apparently now you’re such a cipher that nobody thinks twice about asking you to bring them a sandwich, in spite of the fact that you don’t work at the hotel. Nobody thinks twice about telling you all of their secrets and plans. It turns out you’ve arrived at an important moment for the Hotel Norwood. There’s a board meeting tomorrow, which will determine whether or not the hotel will be sold to a company called the Modulo. 

I’m not sure what the Modulo actually does. This is by design: they are an anonymous, megalithic corporate entity of the sort that is so often the antagonist in video games. They aren’t whimsically unknowable like the Circus in Off-Peak. They’re just vague. They wear blue suits emblazoned with the percent symbol. They carry around a ridiculous company manual. They actively recruit young artists away from their music careers. And most crucially, they want to turn the Hotel Norwood into a server farm. I like some of the Modulo folks I met at the Hotel Norwood. But I’m also sad about the Vancouver post office that’s being redeveloped into cubicles for Amazon. And that’s a post office

The more people you talk to, the more likely it sounds that tomorrow’s board meeting will play out in the Modulo’s favour. The hotel staff are disconsolate and afraid for their jobs. The Modulo’s legal team is up late crossing t’s, dotting i’s. Alan Miranda, the white knight lawyer hired by the hotel’s manager Nadia to convince the advisory board to vote against the Modulo, is trying to manage expectations. Granted, he says he’s got an ace in the hole. We never find out what it is. It’s a cast of night owls, up late out of inclination or necessity. The Blue Moose flows freely, effervescing like television static. (Saturn V was littered with Red Bull cans; this time Cosmo has disguised it ever so slightly. Blue Moose energy drinks are everywhere in The Norwood Suite, like a comedic ad read in a parody podcast. They’re the official sponsor of the dance party in the basement. Their company representative is officially neutral on the subject of tomorrow’s board meeting, but he’d really prefer if the Modulo didn’t stop the party. Opposing corporate interests. One of these stopped clocks is presently correct.)

If the Modulo gets their way, the Off-Peak City metropolitan area will lose a significant piece of cultural heritage. Just like the train station in Off-Peak, the Hotel Norwood is a reflection of one specific person. But unlike Marcus, Peter Norwood was no mere tycoon: he was an artist of great renown. But who was he exactly? Well for one thing, he was Glenn Gould. Cosmo D has made this explicit, but the parallels are obvious regardless. Gould and Norwood are both eccentric cult figures, private and mysterious people whose lives and personalities revolved around playing the piano. Both of them stopped performing live at the peak of their powers. And Norwood’s mysterious disappearance in 1983 coincides roughly with Gould’s death in 1982: just different enough so it’s not too on the nose. More important than any of this, Norwood and Gould are both cool. The hotel walls are hung with Norwood’s album art: tasteful, minimal, reminiscent of 1960s jazz covers and Penguin paperbacks. Like Gould, Norwood was a genuinely modern classical musician, not a bland totem of sophistication.

“Microtonal Ecstacy” on the other hand, is a whole joke.

But Norwood is also Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and every other Whiplash-esque hard taskmaster bandleader. He’s Rodriguez, missing and presumed dead. And he’s David Bowie, not just because of the glammy outfit. I think about the movie Velvet Goldmine every time I get to the end of The Norwood Suite. It’s a Bowie biopic with the serial number filed off, directed by Todd Haynes. The movie is preoccupied with the moment Bowie cast off his Ziggy Stardust persona (captured on tape and film by D.A. Pennebaker). Velvet Goldmine tells the story of the rock star Brian Slade, a fictional character clearly modelled after Bowie. Slade vanished after unsuccessfully faking his own death at a concert, in a moment that clearly resembles Bowie’s fake retirement in 1973. At the end of the movie, the reporter we’ve been following throughout comes to believe that Slade is alive and well and has transformed into another person entirely: Tommy Stone, a nakedly commercial pop star who resembles Bowie’s Let’s Dance-era supercelebrity persona. The film is tinged with Todd Haynes’ disappointment in Bowie, that he could abandon the gay community who propelled him to success as Ziggy Stardust, just as the AIDS crisis was beginning. More generally, it’s a movie about how artists usually function better as ideas than as people. The real David Bowie agreed. He says so himself in the new documentary Moonage Daydream: what’s at an artist’s core doesn’t matter as much as the way they bounce around in listeners’ heads. He’s talking about Dylan, Lennon, Iggy Pop and himself. Add Norwood to the list. 

The ending of The Norwood Suite is even more elliptical and strange than the ending of Off-Peak. But once you’ve Collected Enough Things, you find your way into the titular Norwood Suite, an off-limits area that was once Peter Norwood’s private quarters. At this point a few things fall into place. You learn that your employer, Murial, sent Norwood a vinyl record sometime in the early 80s, not long before his disappearance. By sheer coincidence, that exact record has found its way back to the Hotel Norwood on this very night, in the possession of a music teacher who’s conducting a field trip. Once she’s able to play it, you learn that the record’s contents are barely music at all. It features an automated voice reciting a series of numbers. The next time you hear this voice reciting these numbers is at the very end of the game. You’ve made it into DJ Bogart’s private suite and presented him with Murial’s mix CD. (This was your mission, it turns out.) Upon hearing this voice, DJ Bogart’s head duly explodes, revealing him to be some kind of automaton wearing a human shell. The implication is that what’s happening to DJ Bogart in this moment also happened to Peter Norwood many years prior, also thanks to Murial. 

The further implication is that Norwood and Bogart are fundamentally the same. Even if they are not literally the same person, they are different personas of the same larger entity, different facets of the same force. They are the same person in a similar way that Brian Slade and Tommy Stone are the same person in Velvet Goldmine. One is an esteemed artist and the other a vessel for corporate sponsorship, but maybe that’s not as important a distinction as it initially seems. To drive the point home, the game ends with a member of Norwood’s old ensemble, an elderly paraplegic harpist, Dr. Strangeloving right up out of his wheelchair and dancing past the smoldering remains of DJ Bogart, straight towards you. For the final act of the game, you’ve been wearing a Peter Norwood costume, complete with mask and monocle. What the old man doesn’t recognize is that he’s in the presence of two absences. DJ Bogart is now quite clearly a machine, a nonhuman. But Peter Norwood is just a costume. And inside that costume is a person so nonspecific that they are routinely mistaken for hotel staff.

What precisely this means is slippery, and it should be. The Norwood Suite is a game that’s preoccupied by the relationship between art and commerce, but you can’t sum up its thesis statement on that topic in a neat line. And it’s wrong to fixate on the ending specifically: the themes are woven throughout. Most of the musicians you’ve met at the Hotel Norwood have fraught relationships with their art. But there’s no sanctimonious judgement here of artists who “sell out.” All of the contempt in the game is reserved for the Modulo: a company that forces concert venues to close and turns magnificent heritage sites into server farms. It’s companies like this that make conditions for artists so challenging in the first place. 

Love to be a normal-sized guy in a room full of very small apartment buildings.

The Norwood Suite leaves many lingering questions that Steam communities and subreddits will be more inclined to resolve than I am. Why is Murial consistently pictured as a member of Norwood’s ensemble, when they almost certainly never played together? What is Alan Miranda’s ace in the hole? Why can the old harpist suddenly walk? What happens at the board meeting? (This last one is answered in the following game; it is as we’d feared. The Modulo wins the day.) More power to anybody who wants to figure this stuff out, but as with Off-Peak, I prefer to look at The Norwood Suite as an exposition space for a constellation of ideas, images and sounds. It is Cosmo D’s most sophisticated exposition to date, because it is not primarily a display of excellent taste. (Not primarily.) There are still board games everywhere, but they’re part of the character drama, not just aesthetic signifiers. 

Even more remarkably, there are almost no name drops of real-life musicians anywhere in this game. Off-Peak was packed with music school shibboleths and cred-building obscurities. The Norwood Suite basically ignores the entire history of music and exists in its own totally fictional musical reality. Sure, there’s a blown-up print of a gigue from one of Bach’s cello suites on the wall. But it doesn’t have his name on it. Yes, the dialogue does reference a composer named “Xenokos,” which sure sounds like Xenakis, but it isn’t quite. Likewise for “Froburger,” who isn’t quite Froberger. The briefly discussed “master of the pocket symphony,” Broomes, has a name that sounds like Brahms but that’s where the similarities end. No doubt there are a few things I missed, but I only caught a couple of references to genuine historical figures. One is to the utterly obscure Hungarian pianist and inventor Emánuel Moór

The other, much more consequential, is that the Hotel Norwood’s manager is named Nadia Boulanger. The historical Nadia Boulanger was a legendary pedagogue who taught musicians ranging from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones. Astor Piazzola. Philip Glass. Boulanger judiciously refused to teach George Gershwin, sensing that he basically had it all figured out. She was a skilled composer in her own right, though not a confident one, and always in the shadow of her talented sister Lili who died young. Nadia’s opera La ville morte has been produced exactly twice, and is pretty good. What connection this figure is meant to have with the ruthless, scheming, borderline abusive manager of the Hotel Norwood is beyond me. But it seems meaningful to me that the one figure from music history that Cosmo D chooses to include in this piece is a massively consequential figure who is nevertheless somewhat marginalized and not recognizable by name. 

The Norwood Suite engages with the history of classical music in a way that no other piece of media ever has, to my knowledge. It does not mention the name of a single canonical composer. This is remarkable. Usually when classical music shows up in media, it’s there specifically to trade on its familiarity. Mozart and Beethoven are easy stand-ins for the abstract idea of genius, and familiar works by Tchaikovsky and Strauss serve as shorthands for gracefulness or gravity. This tendency to emphasise a familiar handful of marble faces and iconic tunes is frustrating to those of us who’ve been on our own journeys of discovery with classical music, and to anybody who cares about representation. And here comes The Norwood Suite, which is full of fictional musicians of various genders and races and not a Beethoven reference in sight. Among everything else The Norwood Suite is doing, it is also a vision of what the culture surrounding classical music could look like if it weren’t organised around the canon. I’ll admit, this is what fascinated me about this game in the first place. I love that it depicts people who are writing string quartets, practising etudes and restringing their harps, and whose heroes walked the earth at least in living memory. 

The rough precociousness of Cosmo D’s first two games is gone without a trace. He started off making virtual spaces to display stuff that he and his friends liked. In The Norwood Suite, he’s tempered that impulse so thoroughly that I just spent several paragraphs praising its lack of reliance on historical references. The Hotel Norwood feels like it emerged organically from its own fictional world. It’s an impossible place that feels absolutely real and it makes me feel completely at home. 

Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 (2020)

Imagine if the opening of Bioshock Infinite had been Funky As Shit.

For the second time in a row, you’re being dropped off by the last person you saw. Murial dropped us off at the Hotel Norwood in a rather practical car. But traffic isn’t running to the intersection of Yam and July. The neighbourhood is drastically flooded, so you find yourself drifting onto the sidewalk in a rowboat, along with the elderly harpist who accosted you at the end of The Norwood Suite, and his more articulate daughter. They need you to steal a saxophone that’s locked up in the basement of a pizza joint. Fine. Par for the course. But what’s more interesting is that they ask for your name. This time, you’re not going to be a cipher. This time, you’re a somebody

…for EVERYTHING.

The fact that you actually get to choose your character’s name this time is no trivial thing. Tales is a game that’s adamant that you’ll express your identity throughout this story. This time you won’t just explore. You’ll apply your will to the world. You’ll make things. So I guess it’s finally time to talk about gameplay. I poked fun at Norwood’s gameplay macguffin of Collecting Things. (Off-Peak is the same.) And sure, Collecting Things is a bit of a cliché, but in that game your actual objectives are so hilariously incidental to the experience that it feels like missing the point to criticize this. Nevertheless, Tales tries a new approach. There’s still a fair bit of exploring the world to collect items that will serve as keys to get you into new areas. But Tales also sends you on missions, like the tiny open world game that it is. 

Specifically, it sends you out delivering pizzas. Almost as soon as you disembark from the rowboat, you find yourself employed at Caetano’s Slice, a restaurant run by the former saxophonist you’re assigned to steal from. While you try and work out a way to get into his locked basement saxophone vault, you may as well make a little money delivering pies. Also, you’ll have to make them–and this is the game’s first invitation to really express yourself.

Video games are about wish fulfilment.

The pizza making minigame is a simple little thing that I find unreasonably fun. The orders that come into Caetano’s shop read like Oblique Strategies. “Right in the chest,” for example. Lots of room for interpretation. Will you serve your customers elegant, traditional margherita or pepperoni pies? Or will you load them up with more outré toppings: flamingo meat, chocolate chips, gummy worms, synthetic brains? (Given these, the lack of pineapple feels like a deliberate provocation.) Every ingredient is tied to a different instrumental loop in the score. The more sauce you use, the more bowed cello you hear. More gummy worms, more jaw harp. It’s a kind of interactivity Cosmo D has been interested in since Saturn V, where moving from room to room changed the mix of the soundtrack. Better still, there’s actually a physics simulation here, so if you pile on too many slices of buffalo mozzarella (and who can resist), they will tumble off onto the floor. 

Upon delivery, your customers will assess your creation, ingredient by ingredient, praising your good taste or raising an eyebrow at your more innovative pies. (There must be an impressive amount of writing under the hood here, to account for every ingredient in various quantities.) Whatever the verdict, your customers always eat their order in the end. As ever, there’s no way to fail in this game. If you want your road to success to be paved with chocolate chip and olive pizzas, so be it. This is the first time in this universe where your choices determine what people say to you. It’s only right that the subject should be pizza toppings. 

But even before you get your new job, the game offers you another expressive tool: a camera. Even the most beautiful video games can force you into a utilitarian way of looking at the world around you, just scanning for valuable information. The fact that Tales gives you a camera right at the start of the game encourages you to find compelling angles from which to look at the world, to make the act of moving through the world into a creative one. (Coincidentally, this mechanic is the central feature of Umurangi Generation, an indie game that came out the same week as this one.) For two games, Cosmo D has placed us at the beck and call of self-conscious creatives. Gameplay is an implicitly creative act, but the player’s creativity is more integral here than in any of Cosmo’s previous games. This time, we feel embodied. We’re here. When you play all of Cosmo D’s games in a relatively short timespan, you can feel the focus gradually shift from the developer, to the characters, to the player: from me, to they, to you. 

I’m a mediocre photographer in real life too.

Granted, the place we’re here to photograph is in rough shape. The intersection of Yam and July is a neglected part of town, ignored by its elected officials and physically cut off from its surroundings. Two sides are cut off by the flooding, one by an oddly meticulous pileup of cars. And to the north, a train car dangles precariously off its elevated tracks: an ongoing catastrophe that everybody’s sort of gotten used to. Video games necessitate these kinds of barriers, to keep you from moving into the part of the world that doesn’t exist. But here, those barriers serve as jokes, and also as a way of communicating what kind of place this is. These limitations mean something to the people who live here. Luke the music professor can’t get to his classes because the trains aren’t running. The folks who fish in the canal aren’t catching anything because the floods let all the trout escape. 

But city hall is hardly their biggest problem. Like Off-Peak and Norwood, Tales has its own shady organization that looms over the story–quite literally, in fact. The factory run by Human Resources Horizons is the largest building in the area, and its massive white-lit windows are the first thing visible from your rowboat as you drift into the city. The man in charge of HRH, Big Mo, is functionally in charge of this neighbourhood. He’s the first person you meet when you get off the boat, before you get your job and before you even get your camera. He commands an army of wan-faced goons, all alike, who we’ve actually been running into ever since we first set foot in Marcus’s train station. HRH isn’t just a company, it’s a sort of extra-judicial law enforcement agency. The shady organizations of this world are becoming ever more worrisome. Remember when we first heard about the Circus? And they just seemed like a sort of dodgy arts collective? Even the Modulo wasn’t disappearing people. 

Does look like a cozy ride, though.

HRH looks poised to become the ultimate villain of this saga. But all our shady friends are still here. The Circus is sharing an office building with Blue Moose R&D. (We get a tantalizing glimpse of Murial through a crack in a door, her only appearance here.) The Modulo is still present and working its people into the ground. Even Marcus makes an appearance, trying to coerce a naïve young band into an exploitative handshake deal. But some of the familiar faces seem less familiar than you might expect. Part of it is just that the character models have improved so drastically since Norwood that everybody suddenly looks 70 percent more alive. But there are other red flags. Jeremy played the piano in the last game and went by “Jer.” Now he’s a bassist and goes by “Remy.” Same guy? Who can say? What about the guy at Blue Moose R&D who looks and talks like Dirk from Norwood, but calls himself Xavier? Identity is mutable in Off-Peak City, and there’s no such thing as continuity unless you look for it too hard.

That said, Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 is more explicitly concerned with narrative and traditional worldbuilding than any of its predecessors. We get a much deeper exploration of the automata than we did in Norwood. (Automation and AI are almost as much a source of anxiety here as corporate ruthlessness.) Your quest to retrieve Caetano’s saxophone will eventually lead you into his apartment above the pizza shop, where he’s been keeping two automaton recreations of his wife and daughter and attempting to power them with, what else, pizza and energy drinks. You’ll find a map that points to a tremendous number of automata living in the mysterious face-shaped Building 9. You’ll learn that these automata are the work of Human Resources Horizons. You’ll learn more about the two organizations trying to take on HRH: the Circus, and your present employers–whose calling card is a black octagon. You’ll make connections everywhere. 

All this narrative–and this modest incursion of gameplay–leaves less space for Tales to function as the kind of gallery space that its predecessors were. Sure, there’s a floor of an apartment building where one measure of Gershwin plays on a loop, and there’s sheet music for a part song by Josquin sitting in a drawer somewhere. But this element of Cosmo D’s work has been on a downward trajectory since the start. That’s for the best. It also makes this game a little harder to write about. Ultimately what fascinates me about Tales is much the same as what fascinates me about all of Cosmo D’s previous work: its sense of place. By the time you’re through, you’ve got the lay of the land. The politicians have forgotten this place, and the private sector has stepped in to take advantage. War is brewing. But there are still a few places the locals can go to feel part of something. The lounge in the basement of the pawn shop. The banks of the canal. The slice joint that everybody knows is going downhill. 

RIP, villain.

It’s worth noting that nobody actually calls it “Off-Peak City.” From our perspective outside the story, the city is named after the first game that took place there. But I can imagine the nickname “Off-Peak City” catching on among the locals, like “City of Lights,” or City of Brotherly Love.” It’s what they’ll call the place once Marcus has taken total control of the transit system and the trains hardly come through anymore. Soon, there’ll be nobody left here. Off-Peak hours will apply to the whole metropolis. All this property will be snapped up by speculators and emptied out, a ghost town for the commuters to gaze upon as they zoom past on their prohibitively expensive train. Maybe they can open a pizza joint on the corner of Yam and July, for old times’ sake. It’ll be a hell of a lot better than Caetano’s and nobody will be able to afford it.

…it’ll hold.

Betrayal at Club Low (2022)

There’s a moment during Marcus’s one scene in Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 where somebody makes reference to a “next-level jazz-classical-electronic trio.” This tossed-off line has also turned out to be an approximate schema for Cosmo D’s first three commercial games. Norwood is his classical game. Tales is jazz. And Betrayal at Club Low is half RPG, half DJ set. It’s a game you can dance to. 

Cosmo’s music is half the reason to play any of these games, but it seldom factors into the narrative the way you might expect from games that are explicitly about music. The scores of The Norwood Suite and Tales are non-diegetic: we don’t really know what Norwood’s music sounds like, or Caetano’s. Maybe we heard a little of DJ Bogart’s music in Norwood’s basement. But in this game the score could be DJ Chad Blueprint’s set coming through the walls of the club at any time. Granted, it’s odd that he always puts on a new record at the precise moment when you move into a new room. 

In a video game, you can be whoever you want: a witcher, or a soldier, or a person who is comfortable in nightclubs.

Point is, this is the first of Cosmo D’s games where the sound and the subject are totally in concert. There have always been elements of jazz, classical and electronic music in these soundtracks, but even when the narrative focuses on one of the traditionally acoustic genres, there’s always a beat. This isn’t a circle that really needed to be squared, but Betrayal at Club Low finally provides a setting where a good beat is not just welcome but essential. Club Low is a high-stakes environment. The dancers waited a long time to get in, and they know what they like. Peril or glory awaits the brave DJ. Appropriately then, this game has a fail state. 

For the first time in this body of work, there’s been a total change of genre. After four first-person adventure games (“walking simulators,” if we must), this is a straight-up third-person RPG with character stats and progression and health pools and “game over” endings. I expect that we’ll eventually see Betrayal as one of the early examples in a spate of post-Disco Elysium small-scale indie RPGs (Citizen Sleeper is another). But it also serves as the culmination of a trend in Cosmo D’s work that’s been underway for two games now: it makes the player character truly the center of attention, exerting a granularly personal influence on the world by rolling dice. 

Relatedly, the other trend we’ve been tracing since Saturn V reaches a turning point here as well. We’ve been watching as the gallery-like sensibility of Cosmo D’s early games slowly gives way to narrative. Betrayal is the least gallery-like thing he’s ever made, and the most story-rich. There’s still plenty of fascinations and influences on display here, but they’ve been fully incorporated into the story, like flamingo meat into the fluorescent stew simmering in Club Low’s kitchen. Effectively, this means I’ve outlived my helpfulness as a tour guide. 

I wouldn’t eat this, but I’d stare into it for an hour.

Lest anybody misunderstand, there’s plenty in this story to remark on. We could note that Murial is now collaborating with the photographer from Tales who seemed so intent on driving her out of town. We could note that the player character is a wan automaton, confirming that whatever Murial’s aims, the Circus is not above using these things for their own ends. We could observe that we now know the automaton-filled Building 9 to be the headquarters of our mysterious former employers at the Octagon. Did you notice this is the first game where we weren’t dropped off by the last people we saw in the previous one? Or that DJ Bogart named his student Chad Blueprint his sole successor at Club Low one year before the release date of The Norwood Suite–did he know what he had coming to him?

This is all perfectly interesting, and I had a grand time with all of it as I was playing the game, which might be Cosmo D’s best. But concerns like this will never be the element of these games that lingers for me. It looks like there’s an Off-Peak City fan wiki in construction. Granted, people are free to engage with art however they like, but I’ve got mixed feelings about this. There is a part of me that thinks fan wikis enable the least useful, least interesting kind of engagement for a story like this. We may someday learn more about what the precise relationship is between the Circus and the Octagon, or about the origin of these automata, or whether Peter Norwood was ever a real person. But what would it accomplish to square away these surface-level ambiguities? Would it assist in understanding these games’ attitude towards art, or the wealth gap, or the deterioration of public services, or the importance of preserving heritage buildings, or the eternal tug of war between money and joy? I don’t think it would, and I’m much more interested in all of those concerns than I am in solving narrative riddles. If you’ve read this far and you’re disappointed that I didn’t do more of that sort of thing, well, sorry. The good news is that the Steam communities are full of it. 

***

Let’s tie up a few loose threads. First: seven thousand words ago, I described myself as “a fellow traveler who shares Cosmo’s obsession with music, his love for the surreal, his irresistible impulse to put his obsessions on display, and perhaps his nagging sense that this impulse may be shallow.” The conflict that animates Off-Peak and makes it interesting is that it is, on one hand, an artist’s self-conscious attempt to draw attention to his own sophistication and eclecticism and, on the other, a satire of that exact tendency. It’s an exhibition that serves as its own art critic. Having now played Betrayal at Club Low and replayed Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1, I feel that their total success serves as an even more effective demonstration that the impulse to put one’s obsessions on display is indeed shallow. There’s definitely space for games to function like galleries. I’m thinking specifically of “Limits and Demonstrations,” the wonderful interlude between the first two acts of Kentucky Route Zero. “Limits and Demonstrations” puts you inside a virtual gallery space filled with artworks that would be impossible to exhibit in physical space. It’s Borges’ “reviews of impossible books” approach to literature, applied to visual art. I’d love to see more of that. But in Cosmo D’s case specifically, the more narrative-focused and less gallery-like these games have become, the more they feel like they’re about something other than themselves. 

Second: since I started writing this piece, I’ve been eating a lot of pizza. I’ve switched my default from red wine to craft beer. I’ve been listening to Debussy, Milton Babbitt, funk-era Miles Davis, Burial, Four Tet: all artists that are suggested, if not referenced outright, by these games. It’s a complicated thing to grapple with. The notion that a personal aesthetic can be transformed into a brand and sold to others is an idea that troubles and haunts every one of these games, The Norwood Suite in particular. And yet, Cosmo D’s aesthetic is intensely seductive. 

Finally: the closest pizza place to my childhood home was called Cosmo’s. It’s entirely possible that the first slice I ever ate was from that place.

The Survivors: Part Fifteen

At last, we’ve reached the end of the alphabet. A few thank you notes to go, then a bonus round and a final summing up, and I’m free. 

Yes
Yes
Time and a Word
The Yes Album
Fragile
Fragile (DVD Audio)
Close to the Edge
Tales from Topographic Oceans
Relayer
Going for the One
Tormato
Drama
Union
Essentially Yes (Five-disc set)
Keystudio
Fly From Here
Heaven and Hell
Classic Yes
Yesyears (Four-disc set)

I mean. There are two other bands that have occupied about this much of my shelf space: Genesis and Pink Floyd. But both of those bands were family interests. At the age of ten, I fell hard for Yes, and insisted that we must acquire their complete works. (The only Yes studio album I’ve never owned in a physical format is The Quest, the album they FOR SOME REASON released in 2021, in spite of the recent deaths of two longstanding members and the continuing absence of their founding lead singer.) I think every young music nerd ought to collect the complete works of at least one band. Specifically, I think everybody should collect the works of a band with a huge catalogue and a very patchy success rate. You can learn a lot by listening through the complete works of Bob Dylan, or Aretha Franklin. You can learn the general shape of a creative life, and learn about how small changes of circumstance can result in long phases of brilliance or total catastrophe. Yes was the band that taught me this, and I subconsciously look for the patterns I learned from them in the works of every band, filmmaker and author I become obsessed with. My abiding love for them is situated mainly in their inspired run of six albums from 1971-77. But their role in my life as a music obsessive has just as much to do with uneven-to-bad albums like Tormato, Union and Fly From Here. Precious few bands make up a stronger part of my DNA than Yes. 
Measure of gratitude: Beyond words. Thank you. 

Thom Yorke
The Eraser

An underrated album that I listened the hell out of. Thom Yorke is a more consistent solo artist than people give him credit for. Anima was justifiably acclaimed when it came out, but people forget that “Harrowdown Hill” is a banger and this album rocks. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Neil Young
Rust Never Sleeps
Chrome Dreams II
Decade

I bought Chrome Dreams II after seeing Neil live in Edmonton. It was the album he was promoting at the time. It’s only okay, but you can forgive me for being convinced on account of that concert being the loudest, noisiest and weirdest show I’ve ever seen in an arena. It’s a rare and wonderful thing for a musician to be equally brilliant at two things. Neil is as good in grungy guitar noise mode as he is in acoustic folk songwriter mode, which is why Rust Never Sleeps is a masterpiece. Decade was my way in. I’ve heard all of the albums that it compiles from at this point, but it’s still a magnificent front-to-back listen. Neil Young rules. I like him better every year. 
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you. 

Frank Zappa
Freak Out!
We’re Only In It For The Money
The Grand Wazoo
You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1

I’ve mostly lost my taste for Frank Zappa. He’s the smuggest humourist of his generation, and when he’s trying to be funny he often forgets to write jokes. But when he (proverbially) shuts up and plays his guitar, he’s fun. The jazz fusion stuff like The Grand Wazoo is all good, but you couldn’t pay me to listen to We’re Only In It For The Money ever again. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Zodiac Trio
Stravinsky/Bacri/Ustvolskaya/Bartók

Something I brought home from work. I’m sure I listened to it exactly once. But Bartók’s Contrasts is a cool piece. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Various Artists
Big Blues Extravaganza: The Best of Austin City Limits
Martin Scorsese Presents: The Best of the Blues
Delos 40th Anniversary Celebration

We had a surprising and pointless number of various artists blues compilations in our house. At some point it starts to get repetitive. How many separate discs do you need with “One Way Out” by the Allman Brothers Band? But Big Blues Extravaganza is great because it’s all live recordings from the vast archive of Austin City Limits. And the Scorsese set has a sort of conceptual purity to it. I liked these albums. The Delos 40th anniversary thing is something I took home from work and listened to once. It was the first time I’d heard a recording of Clara Rockmore playing the theremin. Aside from that I have no recollection of it. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.

BONUS ROUND: MUSIC DVDs

Claudio Abbado: A Portrait
The Beatles: Anthology 
The Band: The Last Waltz
Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Pictures at an Exhibition
Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live, Growing Up Live, Play: The Videos
David Gilmour: In Concert
Jimi Hendrix: Blue Wild Angel
Jethro Tull: Nothing Is Easy, Live at Madison Square Garden 1978, Jack in the Green
Led Zeppelin: DVD
Paul McCartney: Live at the Cavern Club, Back in the US, The McCartney Years
Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, PULSE
Rush: Rush in Rio, R30
Bruce Springsteen: Live in Barcelona
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Live at the El Mocambo
Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Roger Waters: In the Flesh
Yes: Keys to Ascension, Symphonic Live, Yes Acoustic, Yesspeak   

As a kid, I’d listen to CDs on my own, through headphones. CDs were a thing that helped me connect with myself. But this collection of concert DVDs, mainly featuring artists that the whole household agreed on, was a family experience. That makes them complicated. They are also of wildly divergent quality: the early DVD era was a gold rush for makers of indifferent concert films. Precious little here equals the cinematic value of The Last Waltz, even when the concerts documented are magnificent. The highlights for me are the Peter Gabriel discs, directed by the likes of François Girard and Super Bowl halftime show veteran Hamish Hamilton, from stage productions by Robert Lepage. Aside from those, the most valuable discs here are the ones that document, however artlessly, performances by artists in their long-ago prime: Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival, Led Zeppelin at Knebworth, Pink Floyd playing to an audience of ghosts at Pompeii. (This last one is actually a Great Film.) Some of these films feel cheap and expendable. The sort of thing I wouldn’t log on Letterboxd. But many of them document crucial moments in music history. Many are thrilling. Many of them I would forget I ever owned, if not for writing this now. 
Measure of gratitude: Profoundly variable. Thank you. 

***

And that’s it. Everybody got thanked, everybody’s off to a new home. Well, almost everybody. There are a few stragglers: the Surviving Survivors. Here are the CDs that I decided to keep. These are recordings that either have specific personal value, or that I’m not likely to find in any digital format. They take up three and a half inches of shelf space: 

  • Howard Bashaw: Hard Rubber, Hard Elastic
  • Adrian Belew: Side Four (autographed)
  • Vicky Chow: Piano Counterpoint (Steve Reich, bootleg)
  • Tyler Collins: Fall (autographed)
  • Glenn Gould: The Radio Artist
  • Marty Sammon: Hound Dog Barkin’ (autographed)
  • William Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part One (Arkangel Shakespeare)
  • The Syrup Trap: Christmas Happens Every Year

I’ve also kept my Beatles Anthology DVD set, and three cassettes: an 80s Bowie compilation, From Genesis to Revelation, and something called Eagle Ridin’ Papas that I’ve never heard but find very funny. 

For better or worse, these physical objects have shaped my life. I mentioned at the start of this project that I’ve become an avid collector of vinyl records. This is partially because I love the sound of a good record. But I think it’s also partially because I have become accustomed to the physical presence of music in my home. I have complicated feelings about streaming. On the one hand, it’s straightforwardly terrible for artists. On the other, I fully believe that having access to virtually the whole of recorded music history at a moment’s notice is the best thing that’s ever happened for music obsessives. There’s no implicit value in physical media, save for a difference in audio quality that probably doesn’t matter that much. But having a music collection does change the way you think about music. It encourages you to think about what’s most important to you, and it helps to define one’s sense of self. The Survivors, and their unlucky predecessors, helped me to shape myself while I could still be shaped. 

Farewell, and thank you.

The Survivors: Part Fourteen

Richard Wagner
Der Ring des Nibelungen (Marek Janowski, Staatskapelle Dresden, etc.)
Toscanini Conducts Wagner (with the NBC Symphony Orchestra)
Overtures and Interludes (Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic)

Wagner is obviously one of music history’s most punchable figures, but I sure do love some of this bullshit. I remember getting Janowski’s Ring cycle for Christmas one year and realizing that meant I had to actually listen to it. I’ve only listened through the full Ring cycle twice, once in this recording and once in the classic Solti. This one’s better. Better still, though, is any disc that presents Wagner’s beautiful symphonic writing outside the context of his often tedious, always overlong operas. My favourite such disc is Chailly’s with the Concertgebouw, but I never had it in physical form. The Toscanini set is a nice artifact. The Karajan disc is sort of dull, though it was the first recording of the Tannhäuser overture I ever heard, so points for that. I genuinely love Wagner when he’s not dictating the terms. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Tom Waits
Alice
Blood Money
Real Gone
Orphans (Promotional sampler)

I got into Tom Waits through the classic Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Frank’s Wild Years trilogy, and that’s still my favourite stuff for the most part. But I stole these more experimental ones from work, and they’re a lot of fun, if a little uneven. I really haven’t listened to them much. I wish I had stronger feelings about this; if my copy of Frank’s Wild Years had been a Survivor, I’d be waxing poetic. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Rick Wakeman
Return to the Centre of the Earth
The Caped Collection

Rick Wakeman was my first hero. I dressed as him for Halloween once, when I was about eleven. Am I embarrassed by this? What would be the point? I still adore his performances on the classic Yes albums, and I can still deal with The Six Wives of Henry VIII, a lovely bit of 70s kitsch. But that’s where it ends. Return to the Centre of the Earth is a bad sequel to an only slightly less bad predecessor, featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler and Patrick Stewart all wasting their precious time. The Caped Collection is a compilation of songs that I suppose Wakeman must be proud of. But I am currently listening to “Slaveman” for the first time since I was maybe ten, and it might be the worst song ever recorded. Still, once upon a time I wanted to be Rick Wakeman when I grew up. That counts for something. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Ted’s Warren Commission
First Time Caller

Ted Warren came to Fort McMurray every couple of years when I was in high school to do workshops along with a few other wonderful Canadian jazz musicians. This album is pretty good. No further thoughts. 
Measure of gratitude: Medium. Thank you. 

Weather Report
Heavy Weather

Here’s a story. My high school jazz band used to play “Birdland,” from this album. At the end, I’d put down my trumpet, come up front, and play the synth solo on my Alesis Micron. It was my teenage apotheosis. Years later (this year), I was recording an original song. It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d been ripping off. I thought to myself, hmm, this needs a synth solo. And I found myself recording a solo using the very same patch on the very same synth. The penny didn’t drop until I was mixing the song. I hadn’t thought about “Birdland” or Heavy Weather for half my life, yet here it was in a dumb song I wrote at the age of 30. The human mind, ladies and gentlemen. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Kanye West
The College Dropout
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

At this point I’d rather come face to face with Richard Wagner than with Kanye West, but I’d be a damn liar if I said I didn’t still love everything he did up to and including Yeezus. A thing I am genuinely embarrassed about is that I didn’t pay any attention to hip hop until Kanye sampled King Crimson. But what an entry point: “21st Century Schizoid Man” as a self-diagnosis. In one and a half seconds, I suddenly understood sampling. Fantasy will probably always be my favourite of his, as much as I love 808s. The earlier stuff is probably better, but I doubt I’ll ever see it that way. One of the most flawed geniuses of our time, and also a massive creep, but he got me into rap. That’s worth a lot. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

The Who
Endless Wire
Then and Now

Listen, I don’t like the Who very much. It’s one of my little quirks. But the hits can be fun every now and then. I mean, every Then and Now. The Who was my first big ticket rock concert, and it wasn’t very good. They had just released Endless Wire (on my sixteenth birthday), and they must have thought it was very good. It is not. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

John Williams
Star Wars: A New Hope (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The only album I ever ordered from Columbia House. (I mean, it was ordered on my behalf. I think it counts.) I was never as big a Star Wars kid as some of my friends. But this music was and is undeniable. Empire is arguably Williams’ best Star Wars score, but the first film contains possibly the best cue in any movie ever: “Binary Sunset.” I never listened to this very much, but it rules. 
Measure of gratitude: Medium. Thank you. 

Wobbler
Hinterland

My thoughts on this are largely the same as what I wrote in the last post about the Tangent, but on this album you can actually pinpoint which specific prog band they’re impersonating at any given time. There’s no shame in that, but I also struggle to see the point. I liked it for a while. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Rick Wright
Broken China

Roger Waters’ solo career is full of facile, if dramatic political statements. David Gilmour’s solo records declined from satisfying hard rock in the 70s, to the blandest Knopfler-ass rock imaginable on every album after the first. If we’re really being honest, Syd Barrett is the only member of Pink Floyd who stayed the course outside the band. (Improved, even.) This album by Rick Wright is a middle-of-the-pack Pink Floyd solo record. It’s pleasantly moody, albeit occasionally cheesy. And the lyrics, mainly by Anthony Moore, aren’t always up to the task of discussing depression with such frankness.
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Robert Wyatt
Comicopera

I don’t know why I haven’t heard more Robert Wyatt albums. Rock Bottom is an A++ album that grows on me more as I get older and sadder. And this one I bought randomly which isn’t even that notable is also really good. “A.W.O.L.” and “Stay Tuned” are heartbreaking in a way that only Wyatt, with his modest little voice, can pull off. A third of it is in Italian for reasons I don’t fully understand, but not fully understanding is par for the course with Robert Wyatt. I love him with a warm love that partially bypasses my brain. 
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you.

The Survivors: Part Thirteen

Talking Heads
Remain in Light

Along with Another Green World, this is one of the albums that’s grown on me most. Brian Eno and David Byrne work famously well together, and both of them are people who seemed fascinatingly chilly to me at first, artists who deliberately keep the audience at arm’s length. Maybe I’ve gotten stranger with time, because now I find them both completely relatable. Byrne in particular is simultaneously affectless and genuine, pointy-headed and warm, and I can’t explain why I find this so poignant. But the moment in “Once in a Lifetime” where he starts repeating “time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us” hits me a little harder every year. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

The Tangent
A Place in the Queue

This is the archetypal example of the kind of modern prog that I liked for a hot second in high school: openly nostalgic, self-referential, technically outstanding, utterly isolated from everything else happening in the world of music. Nowadays I try to maintain my opinion that it’s legitimate, out of a sense of generosity. But the spirit of the 1970s prog it emulates—the striving, the invention, the sense of playing without explicit models, without a net—is all absent here. That cannot be replicated. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphonies Nos. 4-6 (Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan) 

I don’t know why I defaulted to Karajan recordings of all these classic symphonies back in my undergraduate days. I guess I trusted the internet too much. These are perfectly fine recordings of three symphonies I’ve come to like more in other performances. Tchaikovsky isn’t one of my favourite composers. The famous ballet scores aren’t for me. But these symphonies, and especially the sixth, are highlights of the nineteenth century. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Tool
10,000 Days

I liked but didn’t love Tool in high school. I think if I’d heard Lateralus in addition to this I might have loved them. And now the moment feels like it’s passed: I’m more of a metalhead now than I was then, but my tastes run heavier than this. Alas. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Van Der Graaf Generator
The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other
Pawn Hearts
Godbluff

Van Der Graaf Generator might be the most embarrassing of the classic prog bands, but for none of the same reasons as the others. Peter Hammill is at his best when he’s at his most grandiose. But some of those ballads, the personal songs, can get awfully mawkish. When this band is at their best, like on most of Pawn Hearts and the entirety of Godbluff, they’re a strange, scrappy and magnificent beast that’s not comparable to anything. At their worst, they produce catastrophes that bring to mind the worst poetry you wrote in high school, back when you wore a fedora. I love them in either case. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

Vangelis
The Best of Vangelis

It might be the most formative CD in the whole collection. I think it found its way to my house by way of the Columbia House record club. The first time I heard it, at the age of six or seven, I was spellbound. It’s how I learned what synthesizers were. From this came Jon and Vangelis, then Rick Wakeman, and inevitably then to Yes, and my whole young adult taste profile. Not all of it holds up nowadays, but all of it is important to me because it’s the root of everything I thought about during my most formative years. 
Measure of gratitude: Astronomical. Thank you. 

Edgard Varèse
The Complete Works (Riccardo Chailly, Concertgebouw)

I bought this because I knew Frank Zappa loved Varèse, but he didn’t have access to these magnificent recordings by Chailly and the Concertgebouw. One of Chailly’s best attributes is his ability to bring out the warmth and expressiveness in ostensibly alienating music (see also: Schoenberg and Webern). I haven’t heard this in years, but if they ever press it to vinyl it’s a day one purchase, because it’s the exact kind of thing I’ll definitely like better now. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
The Sky is Crying
Greatest Hits

I listened the hell out of these two albums, the compilation especially, during my brief teenage blues phase. Nobody plays like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I remember one of the first times I read something about a musician’s playing, listened again, and found it to be true, was when I read one of his bandmates’ remarks in the liner notes to Greatest Hits, saying that he was totally capable of playing rhythm guitar and lead at the same time. That’s the defining element of what he does: it’s like listening to Jimi Hendrix and Nile Rodgers playing together, but it’s just one guy. I parted company with Stevie Ray for many years, but rediscovered him as the lead guitarist on Bowie’s Let’s Dance (speaking of Nile Rodgers). Not a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s own music is as good as the singles on that record, but that’s not the point. The point is to listen to him play. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony/Symphony No. 5 (Adrian Boult, New Philharmonia, London Philharmonic)

Vaughan Williams is one of my least favourite composers. “The Lark Ascending” is great, but these two symphonies have exactly one good movement between them (the third movement of the Pastoral). Peter Warlock said Vaughan Williams’ music all sounded like a cow looking over a gate, which is a strong candidate for the greatest line in the history of music criticism. 
Measure of gratitude: Miniscule. Thank you. 

Giuseppe Verdi
Requiem (Carlo Maria Giulini, Berlin Philharmonic, etc.) 

Verdi’s Requiem is the polar opposite of Brahms’ German Requiem. The latter is one of the warmest, most personal things ever written for a large ensemble. It is about mitigating the suffering of those who grieve. Verdi’s Requiem is about the pageantry of death: an epic religious journey in which the dying mortal ceases to be an everyman and becomes a hero on an adventure to another world. It is less dear to me than the Brahms, but no less enjoyable. This recording is an old friend. Nothing like it. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

Alan Vizzutti
The Carnival of Venus
Ritzville

This guy is one of the foremost trumpet virtuosos of his generation and I honest to god couldn’t bear to ever listen to any of this shit again. I had his expanded edition of the famous Arban etude book in my trumpet days, and it contained the solo part for “The Carnival of Venus,” his own rendition of Arban’s variations on “The Carnival of Venice.” It is a kind of show-off showpiece that cannot possibly be enjoyable to anybody who doesn’t play the trumpet. I used to do that. Now I don’t. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.

The Survivors: Part Twelve

Stephen Sondheim
Assassins (Original Cast Recording)

Regardless of what you think about musical theatre, your opinion of Stephen Sondheim kind of has to be separate from that. He’s one of those artists who is larger than the genre he writes in. He’s one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and even when his shows are flawed, like Assassins is, they illustrate the absolute highest level of character songwriting: a kind of writing that I identify as much with Kate Bush or John Darnielle as with Sondheim’s fellow Broadway icons. This cast recording is a rough listen in a few places, but the sheer perversity of a bunch of presidential assassins jauntily singing “everybody’s got the right to be happy” gives me shivers every time. 
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you. 

Spiritualized
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

I stole this from work and haven’t spent as much time with it as I meant to. I’ve loved it on the couple of occasions I’ve listened to it. I’ll come to love it more someday, I’m sure. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Sufjan Stevens
Illinois 

This is an album I ought to have heard in high school, but actually heard many years afterwards. The album that finally converted me into a Sufjan fan was Carrie & Lowell, an album so different from this that it may as well be by another artist entirely. Carrie is a spare, beautiful, delicate songwriter album where every song makes me cry at least 70% of the time. Illinois is a maximalist, symphonic rock record that 16-year-old Parsons would have loved. I like it fine even now, but I discovered it past the point where it would have grabbed me instantly. Sufjan Stevens could have been an artist that came with me through two phases of my taste evolution. As it stands, I’ll probably never love his early stuff as much as Carrie & Lowell
Measure of gratitude: Medium. Thank you. 

Eric St-Laurent Trio
Ruby

I reviewed this for my undergraduate student newspaper, where they used to pass out CDs that got sent to the offices to whoever wanted to review them. I took this one at my first editorial meeting, because I thought it would impress people that I knew something about jazz. It didn’t. The review was my first piece of published writing. Haven’t listened to it since. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Stimmung (Singcircle)

I went through a phase in high school of wanting to hear the weirdest shit that every musical tradition had to offer. I knew Stockhausen was one of 20th-century classical music’s most controversial eccentrics. And I’d heard a section of this piece on a long vanished old Naxos compilation. I bought it at a shop in Edmonton where I also bought my first professional model B-flat trumpet. I told the shopkeeper I’d heard the first few minutes and liked it. “The rest is exactly the same,” he replied. He was correct. I loved it anyway. This is over an hour of a small vocal group just singing the overtone series. The length of it is the point. I could certainly do without the erotic poetry recitations scattered throughout, though. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Richard Strauss
Wind Sonatinas (Armonia Ensemble)

This was pressed into my hands by a former colleague who knew I’d played a wind instrument. Most classical music people don’t like music for wind instruments and it tends to make one a little defensive. Not much to defend here, though. Nowadays I like Strauss primarily as an opera composer. He and Mozart are the only major composers whose operas are what I like best. 
Measure of gratitude: Very small. Thank you. 

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring/Firebird (Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland and Chicago Symphonies)
Three Symphonies (Michael Tilson Thomas, London Symphony Orchestra)
The Soldier’s Tale (Neeme Järvi, Royal Scottish National Orchestra)

Every music student has a moment where they get really into Stravinsky. For me, it happened thanks to Boulez’s recordings of the Rite and the complete Firebird, recordings which I now find a little surgical, a little lacking in ferocity. (Sure wish I could still bring myself to listen to recordings by that miserable toady Gergiev.) But nowadays it’s the neoclassical stuff that I like best: the least ferocious music in Stravinsky’s catalogue. The Symphony of Psalms is one of the greatest pieces of the 20th century, and The Soldier’s Tale would be another if not for the asinine story. Stravinsky is one of the composers I loved in my early 20s that has the most staying power, along with Mahler. And unlike Mahler, there’s still a lot of his work that I haven’t explored. Someday. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

Studio de musique ancienne
Palestrina/Victoria (with Christopher Jackson)

One of the relatively few concerts I saw in Edmonton that completely floored me was Christopher Jackson and SMAM performing music by Giovanni Gabrielli with cornetts and all. I bought this disc of music mainly by Palestrina in the lobby afterwards, convincing myself that I’d like it even though it’s purely choral, without any cool old instruments. I was wrong, I wasn’t ready for it at the time. But I sure did come to like it afterwards, and the other records I’ve heard from Jackson and company have also been outstanding, especially their recording of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Sun Ra
Space is the Place

The Karlheinz Stockhausen of jazz, I’ve always appreciated Sun Ra’s work as conceptual art more than as music. But that could be partially because my introduction to him came through this album, which is associated with a film I haven’t seen. His earlier music is a little more austere and a little less corny than this. But it’s a fine line between this and P-Funk, and P-Funk isn’t corny. What’s different, exactly?
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

The Syrup Trap
Christmas Happens Every Year

This is an album where the volunteer writing staff of a comedy website sing a bunch of Christmas songs using only the words “O Christmas Tree.” I sing one of the songs and I am on the cover. It is effectively episode zero of a podcast I produced with some of these same people, which was a wonderful project I loved doing. A terrible Christmas album, but an interesting objet d’art that I’m proud to have been part of.
Measure of gratitude: Weirdly large. Thank you.

The Survivors: Part Eleven

Marty Sammon
Hound Dog Barkin’

My dad brought this home from a business trip to Chicago. Sammon was playing at Buddy Guy’s blues bar; he’s since become part of Buddy Guy’s band. It’s a bonkers thing to say about a self-released album by a guy who I don’t think ever made another, but this might be the best blues piano playing I’ve ever heard. There are elements of the album that don’t hit as hard as the piano soloing, but Sammon is an amazing instrumentalist whose style I could probably pick out of a lineup. Everybody deserves to come in contact with one incredible album that almost nobody knows. This is mine. 
Measure of gratitude: Very high. Thank you. 

Arturo Sandoval
Trumpet Evolution

Sandoval is a musician you get to know when you study the trumpet. He’s a shameless showboat with an impressive high range, and I honestly like that more than I cared to admit at the time. This album finds him doing impressions of other famous trumpeters from Louis Armstrong to Raphael Méndez. I don’t know how he can imitate other people’s tone like that; I always found that with the trumpet you just kind of have to accept the sound you make by default. It’s quite the stunt. But having heard it once I had its number and put it aside. A worthwhile exercise, but that’s all. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Carl Saunders
Be Bop Big Band

Another forgotten disc from my trumpeter days. An old teacher sang the praises of this, which was enough to assuage whatever doubts I had because of the graphic-design-is-my-passion album art. It is flawlessly performed big band jazz, but there’s a slick, collegiate quality to this kind of music that I can’t deal with anymore. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Arnold Schoenberg
Pierrot Lunaire/Lied der Waldtaube/Erwartung (Pierre Boulez, etc.)

Pierrot and Erwartung are two pieces I absolutely adore, but these recordings really aren’t ideal. Boulez deserves more credit than anybody for bringing the music of the Second Viennese School to people’s ears. But that doesn’t mean his interpretations are always definitive. In particular, he brings in some singers here who just don’t seem invested in the material. Jessye Norman is the exception, but I don’t know that anybody really comes to this for a 12-minute chuck of the Gurrelieder. It is good, though. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Shad
The Old Prince
Flying Colours

Shad is a good rapper, but I never find myself listening to his albums start to finish. Some great singles here, though. 
Measure of gratitude: Medium. Thank you. 

William Shakespeare
Henry IV, Part One (Arkangel Shakespeare)

I got this for five dollars at the Bard on the Beach gift shop’s end of season sale. Next thing I know, the Arkangel Shakespeare audiobooks are my preferred way to re-read Shakespeare. I’m not an audiobook person in general, but this has Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, for god’s sake. The Macbeth one has David Tennant as the goddamn porter. Richard II has Grand Maester Pycelle and Inspector Lestrade saying Shakespeare at each other, I mean, come on. These plays were written to be heard. This is the one thing in my collection that isn’t music, but actually it is. Play on. 
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you.  

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 10 (Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan)
The Concerto Album (David Oistrach, Nash Ensemble etc.)

Shostakovich was a crucial step on my road to Mahler. His fifth and tenth symphonies (and to a lesser extent the seventh, which has one good movement) introduced me to that late 19th/early 20th century massive orchestra sound that I still love. These days, I tend to prefer his chamber music, including the piano quintet that is bafflingly included on this collection of concertos. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Sigur Rós
Ágætis byrjun
Takk…

Takk was my entry point with this band, which I love more and listen to less now than I did at the time. I remember buying that disc soon enough after its release that the internet was still debating whether it was up to the standard of the previous two albums. Many years later it’s gratifying to find that this has been cemented as a masterpiece. I loved it from the start. Ágætis byrjun is also great, probably equally great, but Takk is where I live. I seldom listen to Sigur Rós these days. But when I do, after years of listening to Brian Eno and other texture-focussed music, I appreciate it more than ever. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Simon Bolivar String Quartet
Ginastera/Dvořák/Shostakovich

The SBSQ is made up of young musicians from the similarly named orchestra, and they play these pieces better than almost anybody. I think this disc was my introduction to the Ginastera quartet, which I love. Really nice stuff. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Here’s one that I didn’t encounter young enough. I see why it’s generational, but this is such an archetypal teenage epiphany album that it really can’t work if you hear it for the first time in your late twenties. Alas. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Philip Smith
Principal Trumpet, New York Philharmonic

Smith is a wonderful symphonic trumpeter, but there’s no degree of excellence that could inspire me to listen to this solo trumpet rep ever again. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Soft Machine
Volumes One and Two

Given my love for pop songwriting, Caravan ought to be my Canterbury band of choice. But they’re not. Soft Machine, their noisier and less disciplined fraternal twin, wins the day largely because of these first two albums. There is a pop sensibility here, the sensibility of Robert Wyatt and on the first album, Kevin Ayers. But that sensibility is frustrated by Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper’s exploratory playing and rhapsodic structures. It’s a perfect recipe. Also, every musician in this band is fun to listen to, which you can never take for granted. I’m never embarrassed about the music that I like, but Soft Machine is one of the only prog bands that I think is entirely, objectively not embarrassing at all.  
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you.

The Survivors: Part Ten

Pain of Salvation
Remedy Lane
Be

In high school I would try to get my friends into the same crazy music I was into. I was oddly successful at this. I’d bring wallets full of CDs to school, each envelope containing a choice disc and a handwritten intro. Pain of Salvation was one of the biggest hits, thanks to the extremely sexy voice of Daniel Gildenlöw. In retrospect, this is some of the tackiest music that I have ever liked. It’s got everything embarrassing about prog and everything embarrassing about musicals all rolled into one artist. I doubt I could make it through one of these nowadays. 
Measure of gratitude: Low. Thank you. 

Mike Patton
Mondo Cane

I wonder if I missed my window to become a true Mike Patton fan. One day I’ll check out the Mr. Bungle albums I haven’t heard, but there’s a hell of a lot more to his work than that, and I’m not sure I’m the kind of person who can hang with that stuff anymore. I do love this album of iconic Italian pop songs, though. I cannot for my life remember what inspired me to buy it. It’s a fun curio, and a really wonderful collection of vocal performances. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Pink Floyd
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Three-disc edition)
A Saucerful of Secrets
More
Ummagumma
Atom Heart Mother
Meddle
Obscured by Clouds
The Dark Side of the Moon
The Division Bell
The Endless River (Deluxe edition)
Is There Anybody Out There? (The Wall Live)
PULSE
Echoes

I grew up in a house with a record collection that contained all of the Pink Floyd albums from Dark Side onwards. For the early stuff, I was on my own. Pink Floyd is the band that kickstarted my fascination with the narratives that a discography tells. I’m as beguiled as ever by the odd sounds on records like Ummagumma and Saucerful, partially because they tell me about the search that this band undertook after Syd Barrett wasn’t able to lead them anymore. I have a higher threshold for the post-Roger Waters material than most fans, because it explicitly tells the story of the band’s acrimonious split. The imperial phase Pink Floyd albums will always be important to me, because they were a massive part of life in the house I grew up in. But those classic records have become less important to me over time. Whereas, my opinion of the more minor records, especially the searching, inventive records of the late 60s, has remained completely stable. They aren’t one of my favourite bands, but the sheer volume of my Pink Floyd collection ought to show that they’re as big a part of my DNA as Jethro Tull. 
Measure of gratitude: Truly staggering. Thank you. 

Porcupine Tree
Deadwing
Fear of a Blank Planet

These days, Steven Wilson has become more of a Prog Rock Saviour than an artist in his own right. His remixes of classic albums by Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Caravan etc. are largely definitive. His solo career is probably the best-regarded body of work of the last couple decades among true nostalgics. I’ve never been able to get into that side of Wilson’s output. But back when he was an indie rock songwriter with a metal band behind him, I could get into it just fine. There are some dodgy lyrics across these two albums (and Lightbulb Sun, which is not among the Survivors despite being my favourite), and some of the music is a little generic. But I can still put on Deadwing and not feel embarrassed, which is more than I can say for some of the other prog from around this time. Wilson’s most valuable contribution to music will always be his production work with Opeth, but this era of Porcupine Tree is a solid second place. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

The Quintet
Jazz at Massey Hall

This album was my first point of contact with all five of its musicians. There are better recorded performances by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach individually. (Well, maybe not Powell.) But has there ever been a more stacked lineup on the same stage? In any genre? Arguably, jazz is the only genre where this many massive egos can coexist together and not be a musical catastrophe. I love this. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.

Lester Quitzau
So Here We Are

Quitzau came to my hometown with his wife Mae Moore once when I was a kid. It was alright. We ended up buying a CD for some reason, and I am oddly fond of the version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” on this. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Radiohead
The Bends
OK Computer
Kid A
Amnesiac (Limited Edition)
Hail to the Thief
In Rainbows

They’re arguably the most important band of my adolescence, at least for everybody else. For me, they didn’t have a patch on the Decemberists. Or the Mars Volta. Or Opeth. But Radiohead was the first band that I truly loved who were at the center of the zeitgeist. Even so, I was arguably late to the party. In Rainbows is the period album for me, and I was slightly late even to that, because I insisted on waiting for the physical copies to come out. In the meantime I bought OK Computer. The slope steepened from there. Radiohead remains one of the strangest bands ever to become massively successful. An inspiration to us all. 
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you. 

Einojuhani Rautavaara
Sacred Choral Works (Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Kļava) 

Certainly one of my favourite albums I ever liberated from work. Rautavaara ought to be more of a household name: I can’t imagine many people disliking his music. The mass that begins this recording is one of my all-time favourite choral pieces. Really lovely stuff, beautifully sung. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

Lou Reed
Transformer

A classic album by an artist I admire enormously, produced by an artist I admire even more, which is nevertheless a “like, don’t love” situation for me. “Satellite of Love” is a jam, though. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians (Ensemble Modern)
Piano Counterpoint (Vicky Chow, unreleased)

Steve Reich makes truly generous and sunny music in the most pointy-headed way possible. I love it all, and he is without a doubt one of my favourite composers. As a music student, you inevitably encounter his early conceptual pieces: It’s Gonna Rain, Piano Phase, etc. All of that stuff is great, but my real entry point was New York Counterpoint, on a Naxos compilation that I long ago lost track of. The two discs of Reich’s music that made it through to the Survivors are tied to two different facets of my student experience. The underrated Ensemble Modern recording of Music for 18 Musicians is something I bought at the classical record shop closest to the University of Alberta campus. One autumn day in my first year, I uploaded it to my iPod and walked around campus listening to it. Every time the wind swept the leaves into the air, they seemed to be dancing to the music. Four years later, I was in Vancouver, trying to be an arts journalist, making a mini-documentary about the pianist Vicky Chow, whose performance of Piano Counterpoint will always be definitive to me. I’m not even supposed to have this unreleased recording. It was made by my current employer, before I worked for them. They’ll never get it back. 
Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you. 

Fritz Reiner
Rimsky-Korsakov/Stravinsky (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Respighi/Debussy (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) 

When you’re studying the classical trumpet, you inevitably get really into vintage CSO recordings for a while. Their brass section sounds like nothing else. These days I prefer a subtler brass sound in my symphonic recordings, but there’s something thrilling about these performances, even now.
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

The Residents
The Third Reich ‘N Roll

I was excited to become a Residents person at the age of 14, but this is a) not fun, and b) kind of a facile comment on pop music. There’s probably something in their catalogue that would appeal to me, but this wasn’t a good first impression and there’s a good chance I’ll go to my grave without hearing another Residents album. 
Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you. 

The RH Factor
Strength EP

Roy Hargrove was one of the most important trumpet players of his generation, and if he’d lived longer I feel like he would have been a natural fit for the meme funk scene. Imagine this guy guesting on a Vulfpeck track. In any case, this EP by Hargrove’s funk outfit is slightly tacky, but “Bop Drop” is seared into my head forever, thanks to being in a university jazz band.
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Rush
Snakes & Arrows
Rush in Rio

One of the reasons I was so attracted to prog rock as a teenager is because it’s the sound of effort. On some level, you want to identify with the musicians you listen to. And when I was a kid, I was a very hard worker with very big ambitions. There’s no band that fits that mould better than Rush. When Neil Peart died a couple years ago, the story I kept thinking of was how he started taking drum lessons, well into the part of his career where he was widely thought of as the GOAT of rock drummers. We should all be so humble. The late 70s and early 80s albums are what’s dearest to me, closely followed by the synth-heavy albums of the mid 80s. But the two albums among the Survivors date from the time I first got into the band, and they are old and treasured friends. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you. 

The Survivors: Part Nine

The Moody Blues
On the Threshold of a Dream

It’s amazing that a band as innovative as the Moody Blues were in their time can end up sounding so tacky. Threshold is probably the album that’s aged the best of the lot, and it’s still embarrassing. 
Measure of gratitude: Very small. Thank you. 

The Moog Cookbook
Plays the Classic Rock Hits

Listen, I’m the kind of person who enjoys Wendy Carlos, but this is a pure novelty and kind of an annoying one. 
Measure of gratitude: Tiny. Thank you. 

Paul Moravec
Northern Lights Electric (Gil Rose, Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

Moravec is an interesting composer, but I can’t remember anything about the one time I listened to this. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Last Five Symphonies (Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner)

I’ve always struggled with Mozart. One of my colleagues says it’s because I distrust simplicity. She may be onto something. But it doesn’t explain why I don’t connect with the Jupiter, which is a pretty complex, formalist piece of work. It also doesn’t explain why I like number 40, which opens with one of the most direct and memorable melodies ever. I’ll probably never be a Mozart person the same way I’m a Beethoven person. I’m resigned to that. But I haven’t totally shut the door. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Mr. Bungle
Disco Volante 

I loved this album as a kid, but I don’t remember listening to it all that much. I wonder why. One of these days I’ll get it on vinyl and wear out the grooves. I feel like my love for black midi, Between the Buried and Me, etc. indicate that I’d like this even better nowadays. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Modest Mussorgsky
Panorama (Herbert von Karajan, Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, etc.)

This is a budget priced compilation of music by a composer who’s become a low-key favourite of mine. I have a constantly shifting opinion on the symphonic version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Some days it’s a tiresome old warhorse, and some days it’s a glorious sensory feast. The piano version, however, is always welcome. The live recording here by Sviatoslav Richter is pretty messy, but I grew up with it and I love it anyway. Much later, I came to love Boris Godunov, but I don’t remember having strong feelings about much else on this at the time. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

Sergei Nakariakov
Baroque Trumpet Concertos (with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Hugh Wolff)
From Moscow with Love (with the Jenaer Philharmonie and Andrey Boreyko)

Nakariakov was tied with Hardenberger for the title of my favourite classical trumpet soloist, back when that sort of thing mattered to me. Honestly, I would still listen to the Baroque one: it’s full of lovely, spirited playing and beautiful cadenzas. His recording of the Neruda is an all-timer, and I can forgive the fact that it isn’t actually a Baroque concerto. The Russian recording is mostly notable for the Arutiunian concerto, which is great fun to play. But with several years hindsight, it fucking sucks. Tepid Soviet kitsch. Doesn’t even matter that Nakariakov nails it. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Fats Navarro
Goin to Minton’s

This is a cheap and dirty compilation. One day I’ll have to seek these tracks out in a decent remaster. But Navarro’s playing is undeniable: he’s the one clear forerunner of Clifford Brown. 
Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you. 

Michael Nyman
Peter Greenaway Film Music

Forget Hitchcock/Hermann. Get outta here with your Spielberg/Williams. I don’t even want to hear about Cronenberg/Shore right now, okay? The greatest filmmaker/composer collaboration of all time is Greenaway/Nyman. Michael Nyman’s music for the early Greenaway films is as fussy and Baroque as the images, and the I can’t imagine them scored any other way. Each cue is a self-sufficient little minimalist wind-up toy, so they also work just fine without the images. I bought this after seeing The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and it encouraged me to go watch Greenaway’s other films. Drowning By Numbers is a desert island movie for me, and a big part of the reason is that it has the best Nyman score of all, and maybe the best film score of all time. I love this. They need to press it to vinyl. I still listen to it all the time. 
Measure of gratitude: Immense. Thank you. 

Mike Oldfield
Tubular Bells

There are some great bits in this. I love the sailor’s hornpipe at the end. I love the Piltdown Man bit. Viv Stanshall introducing all the instruments is a seminal moment, though I wish the tubular bells themselves were a little more emphatic. Mainly though, this is the album that’s connected to one of my favourite stories in music history, which is how this weird album getting played by John Peel kickstarted Richard Branson’s business career. Good story, I tell it all the time. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Opeth
Still Life
Watershed
Heritage
The Roundhouse Tapes

Some of the best Opeth albums didn’t make it through to become Survivors, because their bare bones packaging didn’t fit my weird criteria for keeping stuff. But let it be known: Opeth is at the top of my vinyl collecting priority list, because there is no band in any genre that was as consistently great as them during the crucial years of 1998-2008. I don’t think there’s ever been a band that’s matched their ability to bring together pastoral acoustic folk with the heaviest riffs imaginable, and not make it seem like a stunt. They are also the only band I ever loved so much that I genuinely resented their sudden stylistic about face. Heritage was a mistake they never learned from, and now they’re a band with a back catalogue featuring at least seven of the best metal albums ever, and probably nothing interesting in their future. Alas. But what a great run it was. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.

The Survivors: Part Eight

I feel guilty. I haven’t thanked my whole collection yet. We’re back.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Inner Mounting Flame
Birds of Fire

I went through a phase in high school where I wanted to listen to everything by everybody who’d played with Miles during his electric years. It’s pretty remarkable how many good projects came out of that crowd. Head Hunters is my abiding favourite. Could take or leave most stuff by Weather Report and Return to Forever. Mahavishnu sits somewhere in the middle. It’s exciting, virtuoso music that wears out its welcome on me a little faster than it used to. But without these guys I feel like black midi wouldn’t sound quite so nuts, so it all works out. 
Measure of gratitude: Sizeable. Thank you. 

Gustav Mahler
The Complete Symphonies & Orchestral Songs (Bernstein, Vienna/NYP/Concertgebouw)
Symphony No. 4 (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain, Karina Gauvin)
Symphony No. 5 (Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Symphony No. 5 (Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic)
Symphony No. 5 (Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra)
Symphony No. 7 (Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Das Lied von der Erde (Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich) 

One of my regrets about working with classical music as part of my job is that I don’t come home and listen to Mahler anymore. Mahler is one of the composers, along with Chopin and Brahms, that became a favourite because he was a mentor’s favourite. His fifth was the first symphony that I collected multiple recordings of, parsing out the differences, trying to quantify how those differences changed the way I feel about the work. Gradually, Mahler’s symphonies became the first body of work in classical music that I knew as well as the discographies of some of my favourite bands. It’s a cliche, but this music contains everything. They’re symphonies that my lizard brain finds thrilling and captivating in the moment. And they give my rational brain plenty to chew on as well, and the questions it poses are just as often literary as musical. But ultimately, this is music that requires absolute attention, and I can’t offer that as easily as I could before. This music taught me how to listen. One day I’ll have the bandwidth for it again, and it’ll teach me all over. 
Measure of gratitude: Fathomless. Thank you. 

Benedetto Marcello
Al Cielo (Silvia Frigato, Sara Mingardo, Gambe di Legno)

I took this home from work, listened to it once, and can’t honestly say I remember anything about it. 
Measure of gratitude: Minimal. Thank you. 

Marillion
Script for a Jester’s Tear
Fugazi
Misplaced Childhood
Clutching at Straws
Seasons End
Brave
Somewhere Else

Tell you what: I sure did have a lot of Marillion CDs, and that doesn’t sit right. These guys are second only to Dream Theater among bands I fell out of love with. In both cases, there’s music I can look back on and feel a little of the old magic. In Dream Theater’s case, Awake and Train of Thought manage to hold back the cringe just enough for me to connect. Like Dream Theater, Marillion is a heart-on-sleeve sort of band, all bad heartbreak poetry and soaring guitar. I haven’t listened to most of this for a very long time, but I can’t imagine I could still sit through Script for a Jester’s Tear or Misplaced Childhood, the titles of which tell you all you need to know. The other two albums they made with Fish as lead singer may still work. Clutching at Straws is as sincere as any of them, but its whisky-soaked one-for-the-road sentimentality is somehow more timeless. The post-Fish albums with Steve Hogarth might suit me better at this point, but I’m not sure I’ll ever find out. 
Measure of gratitude: Medium. Thank you. 

Wynton Marsalis
Standard Time Vol. 3: The Resolution of Romance
From the Plantation to the Penitentiary

When you play the trumpet you run into all sorts of opinions about Wynton Marsalis. I never really felt that strongly about him one way or the other, and maybe that’s because I mainly listened to these two slightly tepid releases. Of the two, Standard Time Vol. 3 is the one I remember more fondly. It’s just Marsalis with his father at the piano, playing ballads very competently. Still, something about it feels tacky. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

The Mars Volta
Tremulant EP
De-Loused in the Comatorium
Frances the Mute
Amputechture
The Bedlam in Goliath
Scabdates

I was a very weird teenager, obsessed with early 70s prog rock in the early aughts. At the time, there were a ton of nostalgia bands trading on that sound: the Tangent, Wobbler, et al. There’s only so much of that stuff I could take before it all started to feel cheap. Where prog was concerned, the real invention was happening in metal: Tool, Opeth, Meshuggah, etc. But in retrospect, the band that best upheld the legacy of all the classic prog I loved, while bringing something new to the fold, was the Mars Volta. These guys introduced both salsa and hardcore to the formula, and it’s hard to say which was more revolutionary. The standard read on their catalogue is that Deloused is the masterpiece and they declined from there. I disagree. I’ve always been a Frances person, and I think Amputechture is profoundly underrated, maybe as good as Deloused. They lost me with Bedlam and never won me back, but those first three albums are thrilling, a super-important body of work.  
Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you. 

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

This is one of those albums that was lying around the house as a kid that I never really liked, but I’m glad to have had access to because it’s an important document and a cult favourite. Clapton’s a jackass and this isn’t his finest work, but it’s worth a listen. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Olivier Messiaen
Turangalîla Symphony/Quartet for the End of Time (Simon Rattle, CBSO, etc.)

These are two of the most thrilling and radical pieces of the 20th century. Messiaen generally works best for me when he’s got big forces at his fingertips, i.e. Turangalîla and St. Francois. But the Quartet for the End of Time is undeniable, particularly the movements for solo cello or violin with piano. That music conjures a truly holy, reverent atmosphere. The effect it must have had in the concentration camp where it was first performed is truly unimaginable. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Pat Metheny Group
The Way Up

Metheny walks the same line as a lot of post-Miles fusion guys, between visionary and tacky. This meanders for 70 minutes and was weirdly ubiquitous in the music sections of department stores circa 2005. I bought it because Lyle Mays was featured in Keyboard Magazine, like a very normal child. 
Measure of gratitude: Miniscule. Thank you. 

Charles Mingus
Mingus Ah Um/Mingus Dynasty
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

These are the jazz albums I love and still listen to the most. Mingus’s music is the perfect mix of headiness and spectacle. Black Saint is more thrilling than maybe any other album of its time. Mingus is one of those artists where I got really into a couple of albums and never made it further into the discography. One day I’ll make a project of it. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Thelonious Monk
Brilliant Corners
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Misterioso
Greatest Hits

Thelonious Monk was one of the artists, along with Miles Davis, who made me recognize the extent to which technical limitations can be a factor in style. Misterioso was a constant presence in high school (Johnny Griffin is an underrated tenor player), and Brilliant Corners became a totem in university. I listen to less jazz than I used to, but Monk is up there with Mingus among the jazz greats that are as ingenious as composers and arrangers as they are as soloists, and that gives them supernatural staying power. 
Measure of gratitude: Large, thank you.

The Survivors: Part Seven

Herbert von Karajan
Debussy: La Mer, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé etc. (with Berlin Philharmonic)

I sure did used to buy a lot of old Karajan recordings. Frankly I’m not sure what I heard in them anymore. Some are excellent (I still love his 1963 Beethoven cycle), but an equal number are generic and rote. This impressionist set is somewhat indifferent in my opinion, though the two works represented are abiding favourites of mine. Nowadays I’d default to more recent recordings, not just for sound quality but for better playing. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Kid Koala
Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs
Your Mom’s Favourite DJ
12-Bit Blues
Live From the Short Attention Span Audio Theatre Tour

I liberated these from my employer’s vast collection out of sheer enthusiasm for Deltron 3030, a project Kid Koala was very much the tertiary member of. Nevertheless, he is an absolute virtuoso on the turntables, and one of the defining musicians of this particular bit of earth I live on. But frankly his recent, more ambient music is more mature and satisfying than these early albums. I still like them quite a bit. It’s a discography worth a deep dive into. 
Measure of gratitude: Noteworthy. Thank you. 

King Crimson
In the Court of the Crimson King
Lizard
Islands
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
Red
Red (remix)
Discipline
Three of a Perfect Pair
The Power to Believe
The Collectible King Crimson, Vol. 4: Live in Warsaw, 2000

King Crimson was never my number one prog band, but they are the one where I understand it least when somebody doesn’t like them. It’s pretty nuts to think that in March 1969 Genesis put out a debut album that sounded like the early Bee Gees, in July 1969 Yes put out a debut album that sounded like a blend of Simon and Garfunkel and Cream, and then in October 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King came out and it was a fully formed prog rock album that we can identify as such in retrospect. There are so few genuine before/after moments in music history. That’s one of them, and it isn’t even their best album. These days I’m most in love with the mid- to late-70s hard rock era that brought us Red (“Starless” is a good candidate for best prog song of the 70s). But there have been times in my life when I’ve loved the antiseptic math rock Talking Heads pastiche of the 80s lineup best. Robert Fripp always said King Crimson was less a band than a “way of doing things.” Truly, it’s several different ways of doing things, all of which I admire implicitly. 
Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you. 

Kraftwerk
Trans-Europe Express

I feel like I haven’t listened to Kraftwerk enough. I love Kraftwerk. I probably like Autobahn better than this, when push comes to shove. But there is something really moving about a bunch of extremely German Germans of the post-war era making an album that points towards the connection and cooperation of all European nations. Also, “The Hall of Mirrors” is creepy and awesome. 
Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you. 

Kronos Quartet
Black Angels
Short Stories

Short Stories really doesn’t register here; I took it home from work and only listened to it once. It’s Black Angels we’re concerned with. The George Crumb composition it’s named after is one of the most extreme and wonderful works of 20th-century chamber music. Totally floored me when I first heard it in university, and it still does. The fact that this disc also contains a spectacular performance of Shostakovich’s eighth (and best) string quartet is secondary. The Kronos Quartet have been involved with some pretty tepid middlebrow projects in the years since this, but the impulse that started the group (specifically, to play Black Angels and other challenging music like it) is one that I wish had been taken up more widely. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

Mo Lefever
Unposed

Lefever came to Fort McMurray for one of our annual jazz workshops and borrowed my friend’s homemade fretless bass. We all thought that was the coolest shit ever. This album is fun. One song was a CBC Radio theme for some time. 
Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you. 

John Lennon
Plastic Ono Band
Imagine

I have dined out on my loathing of the song “Imagine” for some years now. And having read Cynthia Lennon’s memoir, the knowledge that while John was exposing radical openness in public he had cut himself off from his first family informs Plastic Ono Band in a not-so-great way. I still love the hell out of these albums. “Mother” is self-indulgence weaponized in all directions with an audacious lack of self-awareness. “Isolation” is one of pop music’s great koans. “Gimme Some Truth” slaps. “Oh Yoko!” is one of the most purely joyful songs ever recorded, and it’s in Rushmore to boot. John Lennon is a basket of problems, but it’s hard not to love him anyway. 
Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you. 

György Ligeti
Chamber Music (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, London Winds, etc.)

I bought this mainly for Ligeti’s wind bagatelles, which are marvelous and frankly better than their solo piano renditions. Haven’t listened to it for a billion years, but I like it just fine. 
Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you. 

Magnus Lindberg
EXPO/Piano Concerto No. 2/Al Largo (New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Yefim Bronfman)

Liberated from work, seldom played, probably pretty good. Who can say? I certainly can’t remember it. 
Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you. 

Love
Forever Changes

This is famously one of the most unheralded albums of the 60s, to the point where it may in fact be adequately heralded. Remarkably its best and most memorable song is the one that’s not written by Arthur Lee. Bryan MacLean’s “Alone Again Or” is something I find myself humming on a regular basis, even though I haven’t played this for a dog’s age. 
Measure of gratitude: Great. Thank you. 

Corb Lund
Unforgiving Mistress
Hair in my Eyes Like a Highland Steer
Losin’ Lately Gambler
Counterfeit Blues

I’m listening to Corb’s Cabin Fever as I write this, an album I used to have on CD and offloaded because I immediately bought it on vinyl. That’s how great it is. Joni Mitchell is clearly the best Canadian songwriter, but Corb Lund might be the runner up. This particular collection of albums is arbitrary, but every album he’s made is at least a minor masterpiece. Corb used to come to Fort McMurray every summer, but I never saw him because my family was resolutely anti-country. I first encountered him in (fuck, this is the worst) an ethnomusicology class, where I was assigned to give a presentation on Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer. I nailed that presentation. It wasn’t hard. I was an instant convert. Still haven’t seen him live. Someday. 
Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.