After a tumultuous, unforseeable six years, Kurt Riley returned bigger than ever with Kismet. Lauded by the local press, the ambitious concept album was built around a science fiction narrative - the first space opera in Riley's oeuvre.
"From my formative years, science fiction and space itself have been a constant fascination...a fixation. I've been a Trekkie since I first saw The Wrath of Khan as a little boy." But Kismet was a departure from precedent entirely, incorporating dark elements of new wave, post-punk, synthpop, and Arabic tonality. "It was premeditated that the record would be the aural equivalent of a summer blockbuster film," Riley says. "The first song, 'Eternity,' is the score for the opening credits...the theme for our protagonists."
The story follows a romantic, yet tragic arc; in "Eternity," we are brought to an alien world, which has abolished war for centuries.
Fully at peace, they have embraced life as the greatest virtue. To that end, 1 citizen of this world is chosen every year to leave and take their gospel to a distant world, seeding primitive civilizations with the technology they need to survive into maturity as a species. King Bandele, the leader of this planet, is about to wed his Queen, Heaven Snow. Poignantly, Heaven Snow is chosen by the world lottery to leave as this year's ambassador, to a primitive world known as Earth. She consoles her King, promising that she will return to him, knowing full well that the relativistic effects of space travel may prevent them from being together in the same lifetime.
Landing on Earth thousands of years ago, Heaven Snow crashlands in Ancient Egypt in "Eye of Ra." Her craft sabotaged, she is unable to return home or call for assistance. Seeing the potential of humanity, the Queen refuses to destroy her technology - a policy known as The Horus Protocol, required when an ambassador is cut off from supervision by the homeworld. (One ambassador, years ago, operated without supervision and used their technology to become a despot on a primitive world.) Doing this, Heaven Snow knows she is dooming herself to live out the rest of her life on Earth, in Ancient Egypt. There will be no call for help.
Thanks to her sacrifice, humanity flourishes. We discover medicine. We discover the atom.
Communications from Heaven Snow having ceased for some time, the King's brother, The Vizier, promises to take over Bandele's duties if he wants to launch a rescue mission for Heaven Snow. His responsibility is to his people, he argues. But The Vizier counters: is your responsibility not to your heart?
The King launches immediately, his craft navigated by the intelligent AI program Mr. Ohm.
King Bandele arrives on Earth far too late to rescue her, despite the lightyears crossed in "Engines Are Go!" Mr. Ohm's software was sabotaged, just like Heaven Snow's. Decades have been spent flying aimlessly, wandering as King Bandele was helplessly in stasis.
Waking to witness discovering the atomic, biological, and economic horrors humanity has used the ambassadors' technology for in "Theft of Fire," Bandele realizes his craft is stranded. While Bandele mourns for his immortal beloved in "Hush Hush Hush," we are acquainted with Domino, a young woman trafficked and forced into prostitution. Distressed with the state of the world in "As We Know It," Domino rages about the inequity of her life in "Whore," while King Bandele shows us how crestfallen he is with the loss of his love in this dark world with the operatic "Universe."
But when all appears lost, a priest named Father Foster - who has tended to Domino and others in the broken neighborhood where he ministers - has his faith restored when he witnesses Domino give her jacket to Bandele, discovered homeless and injured on the street in the middle of winter. Vivified, Foster tells us in "God's Back In Action" that it doesn't matter whether it comes from God or from man - there is a reason to have hope in humanity, for love is real - and free for all.
While Bandele, Domino, and Foster are sharing in this healing moment, a third craft arrives on Earth...this one, containing The Vizier. Not expecting to encounter Bandele, he makes poor excuses for his presence away from the homeworld, before dropping the charade and telling the truth - that he was responsible for sabotaging both Heaven Snow's and Bandele's ships, so they could never return home. The reason? The Vizier plans to conquer Earth with superior technology and subjugate it, just as he has done before...the reason The Horus Protocol was enacted in the first place.
Seeing him for what he is - the original architect of his pain, and that of countless others - King Bandele engages in mortal combat with The Vizier. Discharging massive amounts of energy in a fantastic battle, the two debate the merits of allowing humanity to live. "They're animals," The Vizier snarls in "Human Race." But King Bandele is defiant - they are worth saving. And in "Burn It Up," King Bandele gives his life to defeat The Vizier and prevent a global holocaust.
As King Bandele lies in Domino's arms, succumbing to his wounds, he bequeathes a final gift to her, naming her Earth's ambassador to his home planet. She will suffer no more, now our world's preeminent political official to our first alien friends.
His last breath leaves his lungs as Bandele closes his eyes, reunited with Heaven Snow once more, for eternity.
A child of the 1980s, Kurt Riley filled Kismet with the sounds that swirled around his ears as a toddler. "I recalled MTV. Bruce Springsteen. Phil Collins. Soft synthpads and rocking guitar anthems. The last decade where it was acceptable for music to be joyful in that naïve old way, before cynicism became de rigueur. That New Wave energy was a true inspiration for Kismet - just as much as the work of ILM, James Horner, and Drew Struzan."
The recording of Kismet was a unique affair, just as Brighthead had been. Recorded while Riley was a student at Cornell University, live tracking was done in the music building while students were gone for the summer of 2015, with two invaluable student musicians - bassist Charlie Fraioli and drummer Olivia Dawd. Charlie, well-known for his dynamic performances with local group Shore Acres Drive, held the center rock-steady as he and Olivia were brought to bear on a diverse set of songs. "Every single time, Charlie and Olivia were on point - absolutely solid," Riley says. "To paraphrase Iggy Pop, they did not show bad form - not once." Olivia, a hard rock fan, became acquainted with Riley when they shared a floor in a Cornell dorm. Becoming friends over a shared love of comic books and geek culture, Olivia became an indispensable collaborator, and she remains the bedrock of Riley's band.
After cutting overdubs in his Cornell dorm room during the fall of 2015, the album was mastered and released by a local independent label. Upon review, several local newspapers, blogs, and radio stations praised Kismet for its compositions, musical performances, and the breadth of its ambition. Simultaneously, Riley had been recruiting and rehearsing a live band for a one-of-a-kind concert given on April 29th, 2016. The first rock and roll show ever held in Klarman Auditorium, a new performance space at Cornell, the Kismet performance included an eight-piece band and an aerobic turn by Riley, free for the first time to relinquish much of his usual instrumental performance in lieu of a role as a pure frontman.
In addition to Olivia and Charlie, the Kismet band featured several other student musicians, including Ruth Xing on keyboards and piano, John Mason on saxophone, and guitarists David Dillon and Sam Packer. Cornell alum, soul singer, and Miss New York 2016 Kristina Camille performed excellently as a backing vocalist,and student hip-hop artist Asanté joined Riley and the band to rap his verses from "Whore."
"Kismet was my rebirth," says Riley. "With that record, I left the wilderness."
Lead vocals: Kurt Riley
Rhythm and lead guitars (acoustic and electric): Kurt Riley
Lead guitar ("Eye of Ra"): David Dillon
Lead guitar ("Hush Hush Hush"): Ryan Frank
Lead guitar ("Whore" and "Burn It Up"): Brad Nathanson
Bass guitar: Charlie Fraioli
Drums: Olivia Dawd
Piano: Kurt Riley
Saxophone: John Mason
Synthesizer/keyboards: Kurt Riley
Maracas and tambourine: Kurt Riley
Marimba: Kurt Riley
Backing vocals: Kurt Riley
Backing vocals ("Whore" and "God's Back In Action"): Kurt Riley & Paige Washington
Rap on "Whore": Asanté
All songs written, arranged and composed by Kurt Riley
("Eye of Ra" co-written with Olivia Dawd & Charlie Fraioli; "Domino" co-written with Charlie Fraioli.)
Mixing and mastering: Kurt Riley
Logo: Kurt Riley
Graphic design: Kurt Riley
Costuming/makeup: Kurt Riley
Videography: Alan Williams & Kurt Riley
Video Editing: Alan Williams & Kurt Riley
Actors & Actresses: Philip Bradley, Natalie Brown, Brian Hurley, Marwa Jabouri, Suthe Mani & Nicholas Roach
Photography: Michaela Delasanta