Zola Jesus


(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

New Amsterdam (2009) , 6.5/10
The Spoils (2009) , 6/10
Stridulum (2010), 6.5/10
Conatus (2011), 6/10
Taiga (2014), 4.5/10
Okovi (2017), 6.5/10
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Zola Jesus, the project of Wisconsin's gothic chanteuse Nika Roza Danilova, that debuted with a number of singles, including Soeur Sewer (2008) and Poor Sons (2008), penned the bedroom lo-fi psychedelic pop ditties of New Amsterdam (Sacred Bones, 2009). Her wild persona enters the scene howling over pow-wow drumbeats in Odessa. The rhythm will not improve in sophistication for the rest of the album. She tries to modulate a melody in Dog, but she can come up only with a show of moaning and wailing. Orthodox is more of the same. Since there are no lyrics and no real melodies, and the arrangement is uniform, it can be difficult to tell one song from the other. When she is a bit more articulate, like in Last Day, she sounds like Patti Smith minus the lyrics, i.e. only the anthemic inflections; the "musical" peak of the album. This is even more effective when coupled with the disco beat and industrial noise of Nativity, the peak of her whacky cacophony. The drumming is a bit more complex in New Amsterdam and Lady Maslenitsa but they simply sound like they were recorded by amateurs. Finally, Be Your Virgin intones a bluesy organ riff worthy of the psychedelic Sixties, with distorted acid vocals a` la Roky Erickson. The closer, Lady In The Radiator, is an ethereal free-form elegy, like the Holy Modal Rounders turning into angels. There is method in her madness, but madness it is.

She retreated from the excesses of the first album on The Spoils (Sacred Bones, 2009) by greatly reducing the sound effects and vocal experiments. Hence Six Feet (From My Baby) is almost a torch blues ballad (despite the industrial beat) and Sink The Dynasty mimics the girl-groups of the Sixties (despite the fibrillating beat a` la Suicide). Clay Bodies is as linear as it gets in the realm of psychedelic rock. Even aimless litanies like Smirenye are much more purposeful than the abstractions of the first album. Crowns overflows with little disorienting sounds but at least the vocals are singing a real melody (with even real lyrics). The notable exceptions are the wordless experiment Sinfonia and the Shrew, a castrated operatic aria that never articulates the full melody, and especially the closer, Tell It To The Willow, enveloped and drenched in sinister beats and evil electronics. The vocals are always filtered through electronic devices, a fact that in the long term is more distracting than intriguing.

The EP Tsar Bomba (Troubleman Unlimited, 2009) was an adequate corollary.

The EPs Stridulum (Sacred Bones, 2010) and Valusia (Sacred Bones, 2010) leveraged the better production and calmer posture of Spoils to create atmospheric synth-pop songs in a classic format albeit crooned in an almost macabre tone. Stridulum ranging from the danceable Night to the majestic I Can't Stand. The melodies move centerstage, back by elegant electronic lines and thundering beats. There's a sense of eeriness in Stridulum and fear in Run Me Out, the looser litanies. The soaring and martial Manifest Destiny ends the ceremony on a triumphal tone. Valusia opens with another bleak danceable hymn, Poor Animal, but Tower displays bigger ambition: its glacial pace, its wavering contralto and its medieval overtones evoke the specter of Nico.

She reinvented herself as a psychotic torch balladeer (Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake, Seekir) and a twisted synth-pop diva (Vessel and Hikikomori) on Conatus (2011).

A collaboration with David Lynch yielded the catchy synth-pop of the single In Your Nature (Sacred Bones, 2012).

The great Jim Thirwell of Foetus rearranged some of her songs on Versions (2013).

A bombastic production cannot hide the fact that the songs of Taiga (2014) are mostly bland imitations of her style for a pop audience, like the Lady Gaga-esque Dangerous Days the childish singalong Go and the solemn Hollow. A bit of her atmospheric magic surfaces into Taiga.

She moved back to Wisconsin and crafted her darkest album yet, Okovi (2017), a black requiem sung in a tone that is both terrifying and desperate and densely arranged with brooding symphonic keyboards and massive percussion. It's a style that triumphs in the Satanic suspense of songs like Exhumed, haunted by witchy vocals and whipping drums, and Veka, drenched in echoes and noises while propelled by a solemn beat; in the naked, glacial Nico-esque chant of Ash to Bone and in the ambiguous symphonic poem Half Life, torn between the angelic and the demonic. On the other hand, the lighter, catchy, danceable Soak sounds out of context, and she tries too hard to please a broader audience in Siphon and the dancefloor in the hyper-kinetic Remains.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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