Desolation, betrayal, evil and, above all else, sacrificial love feature prominently in Kurt Riley’s 2016 release, Kismet. Riley — the musical alias of Industrial and Labor Relations student Kurt Fritjofson ’16 — crafted Kismet around a narrative that draws upon grand and utterly thrilling science fiction motifs. In brief, Kismet follows King Bandele, a character whom Fritjofson often sings as and portrays in his music videos, as he travels to Earth in pursuit of his Queen, Heaven Snow.
Bandele lives in a civilization that, I would argue, seems to be a reimagining of the human race’s trajectory. In place of human greed and violence, Bandele’s society is selfless, thoughtful and compassionate; Bandele’s contemplations of the duality of human cruelty and kindness drive much of the album’s tension. Riley’s earnest, expressive vocals allow him to carefully inhabit the role of wide-eyed, heartsick Bandele. Without divulging too much, the moral elevation of Bandele’s civilization makes their lapses all the more fated, and all more painful for the listener when they do occur.
Kismet is, furthermore, an album that is inextricably linked to Ithaca. Fritjofson recorded in Cornell’s music building — Lincoln Hall — and his West Campus dormitory, and released the record on Ithaca’s student-run record label — Electric Buffalo Records. The musical and artistic contributors whom Fritjofson collaborated with to craft Kismet and its accompanying music videos largely hail from or currently live in Ithaca. The sense of connection between Kismet and Ithaca is nowhere stronger than in the music videos for “Hush Hush Hush” and “Whore (feat. Asanté),” which were both directed by Alan Williams. The scene of Domino, the prostitute who aids and befriends Bandele, sleeping on the TCAT and of Bandele jogging down Dairy Home Alley will resonate with Ithaca residents. The excitement runs deeper than simple recognition. Rather, it is the pleasure of seeing someone take locations that are easily forgotten and taken for granted and transform them to build a vast, inventive world.
The loftiness and boldness of Kismet’s story is equally matched by its music. Kismet is a tribute to decades of glam-rock anthems, dance-rock hits and ethereal ballads. Kismet journeys through its universal setting in a long, instrumental opener — the aptly named “Eternity.” For more than four minutes, the listener hears nothing but slowly shifting synthesizers and bells. It is, on first pass, a drawn-out, difficult track. Yet, on successive listens, “Eternity” sounds like a statement of purpose, a commitment to fully realizing the romantic, sprawling world that Riley seeks to construct. Furthermore, tracks like “Eternity” and “Universe” attest that, despite its extensive homages, Kismet is not a simple amalgam of distortion, synths and glam-rock vocals. If anything, the music of Kismet can only be summarized as a smorgasbord of all that modern rock still has to offer.
While musically solid, Kismet also presents a multitude of selections that appeal to any listener who has ever leaned back, shut their eyes and hit replay to take in the momentum and glow of a great solo, time-after-time. Consider, for example, the opening of the second verse of “Whore.” After a brief tacet for every element except a single guitar note and Riley’s vocals — a quiet, murmuring “Let me tell you what I’m talking about/Let me tell you now” — a subtle mosaic of instruments cut back in. The active bass line, the ghostly acoustic strumming, the shimmering electric track and the gritty, hi-hat-focused drumming all fit together into a compact, brooding jigsaw.
In contrast, one of Kismet’s final tracks — “God’s Back In Action” — seems drawn from another sonic world. “God’s Back In Action” could easily fit in amongst the tender, heart-of-the-sleeve synth hits of the mid-’80s. At times, Kismet can sound a bit sprawling musically, with its vast range of instrumentation, tempos and structures working hand-in-hand with a cogent, fully fleshed-out storyline. In “God’s Back In Action,” however, Riley reveals what, exactly causes Kismet to cohere rather than splintering off into a whirling mass of unrelated tracks: his rich, distinctive vocals. While “God’s Back In Action” foreground’s Riley’s vocals against a hazy synth background and complements them with Paige Washington’s backing vocals, “Engines Are Go!” proves that they still excel in a harsher rock track. Over a pounding rock arrangement that largely cycles around a bluesy piano track, Riley belts out a defiant, anthem-worthy performance. Riley and his collaborators are at their absolute best when crafting songs that interweave the musicians’ palpable study of rock history with a yearning for plain, simple beauty. “Hush Hush Hush” and “Theft of Fire” especially evidence the unshakable musical core of Kismet.
In retrospect, Kismet attests to one of the simplest ideas about music performance. When artists believe in the music that they make, when they attempt to use music to communicate a carefully articulated, unique way of seeing the world, it shows. Riley’s Instagram — @kurtrileymusic — features snapshots of him reading science fiction books, newspaper clippings about developing technologies, tributes to his musical forerunners and snapshots from throughout Kismet’s production process. It is evident that the outer realm-focused aesthetic of Kismet is not something that Riley has merely adopted as a gimmick. Furthermore, Kismet is not simply the product of Riley’s passion alone.
From John Mason’s ripping sax solos on “Engines Are Go!” and “God’s Back In Action” to the solid rhythm section of Charlie Fraioli on bass guitar and Olivia Dawd on drums, all of Kismet’s collaborators sounded committed to spinning out a substantial, but detail-oriented album. Kismet is an intergalactic fantasia. It gazes both at the history of rock ‘n’ roll and at a dream of a more moral existence. Both musically and conceptually, Kismet is undoubtedly an optimistic album. It is optimistic about the potential of compassion and, most of all, about the future of music itself.
Kismet is available at CDBaby.com under the search term “Kurt Riley.” Former Arts & Entertainment Editor Mike Sosnick ’16 is a co-founder of Electric Buffalo Records and accordingly had no role in writing or editing this review.
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]