Already more than a decade into her career, 28-year old Nika Roza Danilova – aka Zola Jesus – has consistently delivered some of the most forceful and spectacularly dark albums. Her second record, Stridulum, is a modern-day masterpiece. Conatus was a bold step in creating languid, acoustic Goth dramas. Her 2014 LP, Taiga, was a departure, as she aimed to achieve mainstream success with a more straightforward, albeit still gloomy, synth-pop approach. For her fifth album, Okovi, Danilova has come full circle and returned to the brooding darkness that originally made her a critical darling. In the process, the Wisconsin native has delivered a monstrous, operatic epic.
Okovi, which in most Slavic languages translates to “shackles,” is not for the faint of heart. Bold, bleak, yet beautiful, Zola Jesus tackles difficult subjects that sound more like ideas from David Lynch’s mind – serial killers, suicide, depression, and loneliness. Some have been born from her natural curiosity while others are based on real-life experiences. Despite the darkness in the album, glimmers of light pierce through to reveal a young woman still holding onto the threads of hope and optimism that linger in everyday life.
That first ray of light is heard on the opening track, the lavishly ambient “Doma,” which in Russian means “home.” Danilova’s rich vocals are tender and endearing, taking on an Enya-like radiance. “Take me home,” she gently repeats, reflecting the peace she found by returning to Wisconsin as she battled depression. The album suddenly changes pace, and she unveils her power and form.
It begins with the majestic “Exhumed.” Danilova’s voice alone is a tidal wave of sheer force, and the sinister beats that echo behind her heighten the song’s ferocity. The song, however, is one of empowerment, about breaking down the walls that keep one confined in personal entrapment.
On the equally menacing “Soak,” Danilova becomes David Lynch. A haunting soundscape is established with the beats throbbing slowly while waves of synths sear in the background with a sinister pulse. Nothing is hurried. Instead, the song methodically builds in intensity and suspense. Danilova’s powerful voice is like a shooting star streaking through the darkness and being the light upon which our attention becomes fixed. Her story is that of a person imprisoned by a serial killer in her final hours of life. She sings with conviction:
“Born into debt, a line of no request
Pay what I can but the rest, I have no chance
So I pay nothing instead
I pay nothing instead.”
Serenity and bleakness collide on the toned down “Ash to Bone,” where she once again reveals her struggle with depression. The lines “You’re never alone, but soon we’ll be / Strangers in the grey / Strangers in our own ways” are unforgettable. Whereas “Ash to Bone” looked inward, “Witness” is Danilova reaching out to her friend who attempted suicide. The orchestration on the song is stunning, as the strings create a remorseful and stirring atmosphere. Danilova’s operatic voice is stirring, and her lyrics are cripplingly real.
“Second chance to pull you
From the wreckage of your mind
I’ll do anything I can
To rip you from the edge in time.”
“Siphon” is similarly bold and powerful in its message. The song also addresses suicide, as Danilova’s friend attempted to take her/his life a second time. As the synths and electronic beats spiral around her vulnerable voice, you hear frustration, fear, and helplessness echo in her words.
“We’d love to clean the blood of a living man
We’d hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head.”
The album takes another turn in its final half as the music becomes more cinematic and electronic, although the arrangements are stripped back. “Veka” is heart-pounding, dark ambient number that would be perfectly placed in a Helsinki underground club. The immersive synth-pop ballad “Wiseblood” is a stunning piece of simplicity. It is, as Danilova describes, a pep talk to herself to get her through a difficult time. It also represents the second song where the light shines more clearly through.
It isn’t until “Remains” when the walls crumble and the light fully reveals its power. The synths and production work are more upbeat and urgent, and the addition of the delayed guitar adds to the song’s majestic radiance. On the album’s finale, the instrumental “Half Life”, Danilova further opens up the skies and allows us to bask under a warm, M83-like soundscape. The two songs are stunning and the most breathtaking of the album. They reveal an unexpected side of her mind and artistry where she can equally enchant and startle us, and where darkness and light converge to yield something spectacular. Where a single artist can still challenge the way we perceive life and understand our own fragility. Only a great album by a gifted artist can elicit such reactions.
Zola Jesus’ tour unofficially starts September 16th in New York. The first official date is September 20th in Los Angeles, and she’ll travel across North America for five weeks. She’ll be in Europe at the end of October to tour the continent for another five weeks. Dates and information are available here.
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