Tabula Rasa (2017)
Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can't help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.
-Kyle Reese, delivering John Connor's message from 2029 to his mother, Sarah, in 1984.
The most potent of the 21st Century's innumerable perversities is the ironic mockery these years have made of past prognostications. In lieu of jetpacks, off-world colonies, and a 10-hour workweek, our birthright was the age of Trump, The Kardashians, and the selfie.
However, even despair can inspire, and so Kurt Riley set to address this toxic environment in the way he knew best. Following the triumphant return afforded by Kismet, Riley began composing and demoing for his third record during the summer of 2016, drawing upon world events (as well as the reoccurring themes of mortality, sex, and defiance) for his next album, given the Latin title Tabula Rasa, which means "blank slate."
"At this point in the 21st Century, there was a shared sentiment that if reality had a 'reset' button, akin to a video game console, we'd collectively push it without a moment's hesitation," Riley says. "Since 9/11, the world changed fundamentally, and each new year seemed to bring some weird new horror our way." The first song, "Good News," yearns for this predystopic age, while its successor, "Screwing Up The World," combines Keith Richards-style riffing with commentary on the Greek financial crisis, misleading advertising in media, and the dire future many Millennials face.
Reuniting with dear friends and Kismet collaborators Olivia Dawd (drums) and Sam Packer (guitars), Riley added two new musicians to the fold: bassist Rick Kline and keyboardist Rob Romano. This band would serve as a bedrock for not only the recording of Tabula Rasa, but the largest increase in activity Riley had ever experienced. Throughout 2017, the year of the album's release, Riley and his band performed many times, in a variety of settings - from low-key acoustic gigs to huge concerts at some of the most notable venues in their home base of Ithaca, New York. (These included a show given just for students at Ithaca's Cornell University, and an acclaimed performance as a part of Downtown Ithaca's Summer Concert Series.) This was in addition to numerous newspaper and radio interviews, and the creation of two music videos for the record.
In keeping with the title of the new album, Riley discarded the leather and Kohl of Kismet, rendering his entire head in white makeup. "The good Lord saw fit to bequeath this large canvas," Riley says. "What kind of artist would I be if I didn't utilize the thing in its entirety?" Donning large-frame mirrored sunglasses, a pocket watch, and a red three-piece suit, this was Riley's most striking visual image to date - so much so that Floridian pop art firm Fried Rice Designs was inspired to create the cover art for Tabula Rasa.
Prior to the recording of Tabula Rasa, The Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County (in conjunction with the New York State Council on the Arts) awarded Riley with a substantial grant, a number of which are disbursed annually to select artists in central New York State. This support, which was used to pay for studio and engineering costs, was an unprecedented blessing. "Never before have I seen a community which supports creative work in such a manner," Riley said. "For local and state government to be involved first-hand with enriching the culture is simply stunning, and it made a world of difference to us." Recording began during the early months of 2017, and was completed within a short window. Tracking took place at Studio Zoot, a gorgeous recording space in the New York countryside, during the early winter months of 2017. Working at a frenetic pace (both to meet distribution deadlines and fiscal constraints), Riley came down with an unfortunately-timed winter illness, which severely hampered his expressive vocal range. However, the band pushed forward despite this, recording 10 songs in 4 days, with Riley finishing his overdubs in just 2 more - a great contrast with the lengthy incubation periods Brighthead and Kismet enjoyed.
The thematic usage of Tabula Rasa as a title was tripartite. In addition to the reset of reality Riley sought, and the stark white rendering of his visage, Riley retooled his sound for the album, as well. Gone were the rich glam textures of Brighthead or the post-punk electro prog of Kismet; Tabula Rasa was a songwriter's album in the classic sense, updated with lovingly crafted guitar tones, operatic piano arrangements, warm bass notes, and a stunning drum sound. Several of the tracks, including "Century," "Tempus Fugit," and "Bound For Glory," have become oft-requested fan favorites during live performances.
"Shadow" was the second of three songs Riley was inspired to craft after a whirlwind romance which ended in heartbreaking fashion. "Human 101" combined a jaunty, happy-go-lucky view of the power love can instill in a body with an operatic middle-eighth (with nods to the film Groundhog Day). And "All Night Long," inspired by the glorious 1920s U.S. expat and renowned Parisienne Josephine Baker, is a testament to the Delta blues boogie which first galvanized Riley as a teenager.
Sadly, Tabula Rasa would be the final record upon which Riley would collaborate with his dear friends Olivia Dawd and Sam Packer, as they relocated after graduating from Cornell University. However, the magnanimous Rick Kline remains at Riley's side to this day, the bedrock of his live band.
Well-received by a litany of local and regional press outlets, Tabula Rasa was the final album in Riley's first chapter, the first panel in his triptych. The foundation for the future was now set.
Lead vocals: Kurt Riley
Rhythm and lead guitars (acoustic and electric): Sam Packer, Kurt Riley
Bass guitar: Rick Kline
Drums: Olivia Dawd
Piano: Rob Romano, Kurt Riley
Synthesizer: Rob Romano
Handclaps: Kurt Riley, Olivia Dawd, Sam Packer, Rick Kline, & Rob Romano
Backing vocals: Kurt Riley
All songs written, arranged and composed by Kurt Riley
Tracking and Mixing: Alex Caminiti at Studio Zoot
Mastering: Brandon Vaccaro at Mystery Cabal
Logo, insignia and costume designs: Kurt Riley
Graphic design: Fried Rice Designs/Kurt Riley
Makeup: Kurt Riley
Videography: Alan Williams, Olivia Dawd, and Tyran Grillo
Video Editing: Kurt Riley, Olivia Dawd
Photography: Tyran Grillo, Olivia Dawd, and Lana Romano