Album Reviews

Zola Jesus – Stridulum II

(Souterrain Transmissions) UK release date: 23 August 2010

Zola Jesus have the mainstream acclaim and the undergroundbacking, the interesting opera-singer-cum-alternative-band-front-womanback-story and the token celebrity fan in Lady GaGa. A breakthroughseems imminent.

Nika Roza Danilova is the voice behind the project. The biographylinks her 10-year study of opera to her unique childhood in thewoods of Wisconsin (“raised by wolves”), combining her upbringing withan interest in avant industrial, consequently starting Zola Jesus. 20%of the above is likely to be true; any future mentions of it ininterviews will most likely receive subdued, slightly impatientresponses from the lady concerned.

But then it’s something to work with, as the majority of thoughtsurrounding Zola Jesus comprises of little more than sheer mystery.Danilova’s voice, although always at the forefront of the mix, isbacked by abstract synths, dark and brooding, and minimal drumpatterns, all of which make up Stridulum II, an extension of theStridulum EP released earlier this year.

The influence of the “witch-house” genre doesn’t remove anyaccessibility from Zola Jesus’ sound, particularly in Night – themini-album opener. Danilova’s voice sounds far from operatic;extending vocal chords to unreachable heights, straining her sound andexposing a heartfelt relief in the words “In the end of the night,you’re in my arms”.

Amongst the passionate cries and the darkeningelectronics comes a very simple, often used melody. And it exemplifiesthe fact that Zola Jesus are at their best when they stray intocomplete pop territory, whilst keeping to their experimental roots.You can say exactly the same for Bat For Lashes; and both parties are guilty of occasionally putting pride beforepotential, shying away from recording the divine pop song we all knowlies within them.

Sea Talk produces similar results to the opening track. As one ofthe three extra songs added onto the original EP, it beautifullybuilds up to a grand piece; immediate and anthem-like. Far too oftenhowever, the melodies aren’t developed, Danilova choosing to groundthem beneath synths that don’t resonate, alongside her overwhelmingvoice (see: Manifest Destiny, Stridulum, Run Me Out).

That voice is nevertheless an integral part of Zola Jesus’ appeal.Its earnestness and unique slant are the opposite of operaticconvention. Comparisons to Florence Welch may be forthcoming but asopposed to Welch, you sense a greater awareness of lyrics withDanilova, a history and meaning behind her words. Stridulum II is anextensive introduction to this exciting new project but, in exposingearly weaknesses, it gives room for development.

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