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Zola Jesus


Sacred Bones (NA) / Souterrain Records (EUR)

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Continuing in my series of post Fever Ray musicians, i give you Zola Jesus. Zola Jesus is the stage name of ethnically Russian Wisconsinite Nika Roza Danilova, and Conatus is her third album. Interestingly enough, Zola Jesus was an opening act on Fever Ray's European tour in 2010, so perhaps her inspiration comes straight from the source.

Danilova sings expressively, using a wide range of sounds, from deep growling to sopranic aah-ing. Her enunciation is kind of strange in that she often swallows part of a word, particularly vowels, while dragging out other sounds. Even though i can tell that she is singing in English, her vocals still sound kind of otherworldly and strange. Very Fever Ray-ish.

She pairs her vocals with a keyboard-based music, mostly a roaring and whooshing of synths. The beats are often electro sounding, and quite commonly dance-ish -- a clattering, glitchy beat behind which her voice soars. The formula is pretty simple, and somewhat standard these days, but i think she pulls it off. Let's look at the tunes here.

The record starts with the short instrumental Swords, a glitchy beat and eerie synths under her wordless moaning. It kind of sets the scene for the rest of the record. It fades out, and suddenly there are deep synth strings and a strong chugging beat, very Skinny Puppy-ish. The song is called Avalanche, and Danilova sounds a lot like Peepshow-era Siouxsie Sioux here, only with dark industrial music. Good stuff.

Vessel is very similar to Avalanche, only with an occasional piano riff and a clattering percussion that reminds me of People are People. Here, Danilova really wails, letting her voice cut loose with swallowed vowels and words that fly across her entire dynamic range. This is the most virtuoso vocal performance on the record, as she lets her voice show its strengths.

On Hikikomori, she really lets her Fever Ray influence shine. This is a song of deep synths and soaring vocals. Ixode, on the other hand, is almost instrumental. Well, she is singing here, but i think those are tones, not words, either that or the words are so drawn out that they are not recognizable as words. This is the only time on the record she goes full out for this operatic vocal style, and it is a nice contrast with the rest of the songs. Both of these songs feature some really nice strings, which contrast well with her voice.

On Seekir, the ever present beat takes on a explicitly dance feel, almost like She Wants Revenge. Danilova couples this with a happy keyboard melody, and the whole combination really works. I bet this is great live. The next tune, In Your Nature starts with sawing strings and her voice soaring, but as it grows, the beat goes from a sparse thudding to a skipping dance beat. There is a really nice transition within this song.

Danilova mixes it up for the weirdly titled Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake. The beat here is a steady foot stomp, over which she plays staccato piano while wailing clearly. When her enunciation is clear like this, she sounds like an old blues singer, only with weird industrial music in the background. Shivers is a sparse tune with a chugging electro beat, deep synths, and her wailing away. The vocals here seem bluesy to me as well, just like the previous tune, i suppose due to the clearer enunciation. However the whole song is very electro, and slightly creepy.

Skin slows things down even further, with Danilova playing piano and singing clearly, a few layers of distorted voice in the background. This is pretty. However, she is back to the synths and intense layering for Collapse. There is no real beat here, just layers of fuzzy synths and strings. It's a decent tune, but not her best work, and it just kind of ends suddenly, a jarring stop to the entire record.

However, disappointing ending aside, this is a great record. Danilova has a powerful voice, and the industrial synthpop she makes really fits her singing style. After listening to Conatus i am curious to hear her previous work. For those who like this type of thing, Zola Jesus is an artist to check out.

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