Review : Zola Jesus - Conatus
PitchforkNika Roza Danilova began her Zola Jesus project with a formidable arsenal already in place. She had a richly gothic perspective honed by a rural upbringing and studies in philosophy, a background in opera conjoined with a taste for industrial music, and a scarred-yet-commanding voice. The albums and EPs she issued over the last couple of years were startlingly realized for such a young artist, but Conatus, a big record that keeps turning dark and strident, makes them seem like warning shots. Most traces of obscuring murk have burned away, so that every pock and ridge in the rugged, elemental music stands out distinctly. It's new wave mounted on a geological scale, where Danilova's solipsistic spirit-- "I was able to communicate this universe that is my prison," she said of "Vessel"-- assumes epic proportions. Her bouts of nihilism feel nervier and more bracing in the unforgiving light of sonic clarity. The closer she gets, the more enigmatic she's revealed to be.
Conatus is mainly built from thundering toms, majestically revolving synthesizers, and warm courses of classical stringed instruments. "I kept having these primal images," she said of the music, "just quite strange landscapes and shapes I couldn't shake." That may sound like a meaningless gloss, but on "Swords", the minute-long opening track, you can hear exactly what she means. Concussive drums and scrolling mechanical textures vividly evoke a terrain. Whatever biosphere you choose to project on it (I get desert), Danilova's voice remains fixed on a faraway horizon, receding as you approach. When she bursts into the foreground on "Avalanche" and stays there for the remainder of the album, the impression of impassable distance lingers. This is partly because of the authority of Danilova's voice, and partly because the music gives nothing away, thrumming along with power that shades into ambivalence toward the shifting emotional register of the singing. The results are dramatic but never melodramatic, as Danilova maps the dimensions of her self-imprisonment with resolve.
There has always been something almost subliminally idol-killing about the Zola Jesus project, and it really comes into focus here. Danilova's childhood opera aspirations are subverted into something nearly opposite. Opera singing is narrative and flows smoothly from deep within. Danilova is more allusive and tortuous. Her voice keeps getting caught in her throat, where it's stressed and twisted by transient emotional surges. Though the theatricality and the epic-pop trappings may evoke artists like Dead Can Dance, the vocals have the passion of blues singing. Danilova is equally iconoclastic when it comes to industrial influences like Throbbing Gristle, finding ways to make abrasion as musical as possible without sacrificing tension. Her touchstones have been digested into a personal style that is much more substance than reference....full text
PrettymuchamazingNika Rosa Danilova, better known by her nom-de-electro-goth Zola Jesus, has been making her own unique brand of classically-influenced industrial pop (yes!) with an overarching dark side since 2006, before she could even legally buy cigarettes. Drawing inspiration for the cold, wide-open soundscapes she’s prolifically released on multiple EPs and full-length records since 2009 from the frigid desolation of a snowbound Wisconsin childhood as much as from post-punk and classical opera, Danilova’s releases effortlessly evade genre classification. They’re songs that evoke frozen, beautiful, empty places, songs of unfamiliar and sort of creepy but totally impossible beauty, songs that amound influences from Swans to Nietzsche – songs that really have no precedent. Now that Danilova’s reached the ripe old age of 22, she’s started to dig deeper into her poppier influences, and her third full-length release Conatus reads like an alien tribute to classic pop balladry. That is to say, it’s awesome.
You can’t talk about Zola Jesus without talking about Danilova’s voice, which is like Kate Bush pitchshifted down at least two octaves. When she sings unaccompanied or over loops of her own voice (see: the end of “Avalanche” when the song starts to sound like its title, an eerily quiet rush) she sounds like she’s singing a ghostly alto version of a classical aria. It’s a unique instrument in its own right – she opens “Vessel” with a heavily processed vocal collage that, for other singers, would probably end up sounding totally computerized; for Danilova, it’s an unexpected moment to show off her tremendous range.
Her electronic, hearbeat-pulsing backbeats, poppier (sometimes to the point of clubby) on Conatus than ever before, are simple enough to give her voice ample time to shine but complex and interesting enough to drive the instrumental moments along. Album highlight “Seekir” starts with an undulating bass drone as the foundation beneath Danilova’s rhythmic, chanted, almost spiritual croons before transforming into a bona-fide eighties pop song complete with driving, arpeggiated synths. It never descends into cheesy territory thanks to Danilova’s truly incredible pipes, whose cold depth never completely masks the warm intensity that pervades every note. When she repeats “I wanna go and I’ll never stop,” even as all the instrumentation drops out beneath her, it’s impossible to deny it. “In Your Nature” has the same gradual, string-bolstered growth to head-nodding pop without entirely losing sight of Danilova’s trademark infinite, cold soundscape. It’s when she integrates her pop sensibility into that gothic-industrial-classical (what a hyphenate!) mode that she becomes most accessible, and, we think, is at her best....full text
GuardianZola Jesus's last album, Stridulum II, deservedly propelled this one-woman electronic project out of the cosy demi-monde of the blogosphere and on to a wider stage last year. With opera training and a degree in French and philosophy, Jesus makes for an uncommon beat-maker: erudite in her angst. The term "conatus" refers to the momentum to keep evolving. But here the LA-based midwesterner sticks close to the blueprint of her past two efforts, her aching bellows of a voice gusting through mournful strings and occasionally bolder beats, as on "Shivers". It's all very accomplished, but lacking in variety; "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake" is the closest she comes towards the killer pop blow of which she is surely capable....full text
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