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Zola Jesus


[Sacred Bones; 2013]

By ; September 3, 2013 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Bringing strings into the mix often leads to the clichéd assumption of slowing down an artist’s music, drawing out notes for dramatic effect and poignancy. However, when that artist is Zola Jesus , the cliché doesn’t work, and that’s mainly down to her most talked about feature: her voice. Nika Roza Danilova’s music was never primarily slow, but the notes she sung were full of dramatic effect, and whatever she was singing about in her operatic, astounding voice was suddenly meaningful. What made her music more effective (particularly that on her Stridulum and Valusia EPs, and also, on her 2011 album Conatus, albeit to a lesser extent) was that her huge voice was able to create melodical hooks that sounds personal but widely relatable.

Strangely, with J.G. Thirlwell leading a quartet beside her, Danilova’s music becomes something of a different beast. Some tracks strip away everything altogether, as Thirlwell reimagines the song’s original melodies into measured, graceful sweeps, like on “Avalanche (Slow),” where the scene of snow tumbling down a mountainside shot in slow motion comes to mind. “It all falls down,” Danilova sings, stepping carefully from one word to the next, and she’s spot on, as it sounds like the bombastic drums and gothic electro drones of her previous work has all melted away, revealing the beautiful inner skeleton. “Collapse” follows suits, retaining the thoughtful pace it had on Conatus, but here the lyrical hook – “it hurts to let you in” – seems to bleed more.

It’s hard to deny that the aforementioned tracks play to the preconceived idea many might imagine when they think about Zola Jesus songs done with strings, all astute and near-judiciously paced. But instead of the vocals being allowed to pipe themselves up and take the limelight, on Versions Danilova can be found falling backwards into herself, restraining her huge voice. On the aforementioned “Avalanche (Slow)” her words are drawn out like an additional bow being swept across a string, and come the final chorus, she reveals a brighter and surprisingly beautiful tone. On “Sea Talk,” the bridge at the end of the song sounds tamer and reserved while “Run Me Out” sounds like it’s channelling a different kind of sorrow.

Her voice does get big though – it’d be hard to stop it happening at some point in a performance – and it happens as the tracks themselves become that bit more beefed up. Gone are the majority of dark textures and clatters, but Danilova retains a few IDM drum beats, which helps remind where the track originates from, it not helping to vary the pace. The big tracks from her previous two EPs aren’t quite as dramatic as before, but they still flourish when the choruses some around. “Sea Talk” isn’t quite as vibrant as before and “Night” loses something with the reverb absent, but the intrigue comes simply in the transformation.

“Fall Back” (the only new song here) is the best fusion of strings and beats, working effectively with pizzicato textures that release the tension while also allowing Danilova to carry forward her ability to worm around syllables, making the line “I would do anything to be the one with you” sound like “I would do anything to be at war with you.” “Hikikomori” is a highlight as well, using plenty of rigid string strokes to create a sense of unease while managing to create momentum without an added beat. It’s when the strings sound a little too syrupy and crass that they fail to make the new version a worthy competitor against the original. “Run Me Out” takes on something of a movie score sound when the suddenly major key strokes come into the picture and when a similar thing happens on “In Your Nature,” it takes the track down an odd path that doesn’t entirely suit it, even though it’s one of Danilova’s more upbeat and instantly likeable tracks.

Still, when Danilova gathered with Thirlwell, a string quartet, and a crowd of intrigued and eager listeners at the New York’s Guggenheim Art Museum, it would definitely have been a feast for the ears, likely completely turning the idea of what a Zola Jesus track is upside down. With repeated listens though, the tracks on Versions don’t entice you back again and again like the ominous hook-laden tracks of Stridulum or even the wide sound palette of Conatus do. Versions is probably best for those who were there at the Guggenheim concert. But there are certainly moments on the album that we should be glad to have: some are a real pleasure to notice and partake in, like the way the instruments gradually take up the same melody over a series of consecutive bars, as evidenced at the wonderful climax of “Collapse,” but just Danilova’s voice in itself is worth hearing in a new setting. You can take away the backdrop of doom and gloom, but as evidenced by “Seekir” (which is the only track to include a sample from the original song), you can’t replace that voice, no matter how many strings you bring into the mix.


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