08 October 2011

Zola Jesus: "Conatus"

Zola Jesus’s third album, “Conatus” (26 September 2011 in the UK, 4 October 2011 in the USA), is the kind of album that I have an inclination towards: an album in the traditional sense, not easily definable in terms of genre, full of passionate conviction, and infectiously alluring. The namesake of the act is the moniker employed by Nika Roza Danilova, who hails from the great state of Wisconsin (USA), and interestingly enough was raised on a hundred acres of forest, in isolation. I point out this fact because it is reflected in her music: cinematic, spatially aware, and introspective. Though I think the label of “gothic” is one that is misplaced on her, because that term has been adulterate at this point. I would rather qualify that by saying that she has the same sense of dark broodiness to her music that the original post-punk gothic pioneers had, even when it is enticing you to dance. And that’s the thing about this album, you are not sure how you are supposed to react to it: invite a few friends over, have a few drinks, dance or ponder in solitude in the dark. Perhaps it is visceral confusion that makes “Conatus” great – the fact that this is music that lends itself to both.

I do not think I would place Zola Jesus as one of the bands caught up in revival (for the sake of revival). Furthermore, I am sure that Nika Roza Danilova has been compared to just about everyone out there, but I think most of those comparisons are as misplaced as the adulterated “gothic” label. Here are a few comparisons that may entice you to want to listen. Like one of my favorite contemporary artists, Clara Engel, Danilova oozes uncompromising passion towards her music. The beauty, like Engel’s music, is the feeling that what you are listening to is sincere, full of conviction, and heartfelt. In terms of her image, she is like the classic Annie Lennox: what you see is an extension / mirror of the profundity of the music, not something that exists in a vacuum, but rather part of the entire package. Musically, she has the dramatics of the classic, avant-garde Kate Bush – without loyalty to any one genre or mindset of how to approach her music, Danilova is able to breathe a distinct life into each song. And, lastly, as a vocalist, she is as haunting as Susan Ballion, the one and only Siouxsie Sioux. As a listener, you really feel Danilova’s passion when she sings with complete abandon.

Musically, this is a hodgepodge of dark chamber pop, synthpop, post-punk gothic, and art rock; however, each song has all of these elements to varying degrees. After the short introduction, “Sword” (sound and vocal effects), you are confronted with “Avalanche” – a post-punk beat and sinister keyboard, electro claps, and powerful wailing. Yet, later in the album, “Shivers” has the same mentality to the keys, but the sounds are softer, a continual sound effect (short of an ostinato), and a pop worthy beat – both songs may share the same underpinnings, but they are worlds apart. The most amazing vocal moment comes during the closing track “Collapse.” The music of this song is approached in a minimalist fashion, allowing the power of her soulful singing to carry the song. It would be easy to argue that there are other songs that demonstrate a greater range in vocals, but that is not what makes great vocals. What makes these vocals standout is that the vocal arrangements are so hauntingly striking they almost subvert the music (but not completely), making it near inconsequential – it is not the two layers of music that compel you to listen, it is the voice that arrests your complete attention.

I can’t help but be heady and theoretical while watching the video for “Vessel,” (directed by Jacqueline Castel of Future Primitive Films) [posted below], which really brings out the cinematic qualities of the music. From the subtly shifting imagery, within a definite range of colors, with the use of animation to juxtapose the concrete from the ethereal, this video captures that consciousness of spatiality I mentioned above and the entire concept of isolation. The video does not portray Danilova as a character in a short film, but rather as the subject of study in a phantasmagorical, surreal documentary. And that is another point about her music: she is not causally singing about incidents, but rather living them out in her music. This is where that passionate conviction emotes. Furthermore, she could easily have portrayed herself as a character, but rather, as stated above, allowed her image to be not only part of the imagery of the video, but also the “image” of profundity that the song arches towards.

As I am writing at this moment, I am re-listening to the vocal arrangements in “Ixode,” set to a steady, 80s house beat. It is the perfect exemplar of the album: thought and emotion provoking, wrapped in carefully detailed music that pulls from many distinct references to create an entire experience. Zola Jesus’ “Conatus” is definitely one of the big surprises of the year, and one of the must haves of the year.

Track Listing:
1. Swords
2. Avalanche
3. Vessel
4. Hikikomori
5. Ixode
6. Seekir
7. In Your Nature
8. Like the Palm of the Burning Handshake
9. Shivers
10. Skin
11. Collapse

Keep up with Zola Jesus at the band’s homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Also, check out A Primitive Future’s homepage and YouTube Channel, FUTUREPRIMITVEFILMS, where the video for “Vessel” can be found.

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