September 27, 2011

Album Review: Zola Jesus' Conatus

Nika Roza Danilova may be one of the preeminent faces in the goth pop comeback of recent years, but AwkwardSound's Best New Artist of 2010 stylistically bares few resemblances to her dark-sided contemporaries. Where as Cold Cave, Austra and Abe Vigoda subscribe to a gleeful yet gloomy version of synth pop, Danilova's voice has been her main instrument with the music behind it continuously evolving on each release. Her haunting 2008 lo-fi debut, The Spoils introduced Zola Jesus to the world as a young diamond-in-the-rough whose aspirations as a singer sharply contrasted a Midwestern lifestyle where the arts probably take the backseat to things like college sports.

In 2010, Danilova packed her bags and headed west to Los Angeles. Like a metaphorical cocoon, the move resulted in the release of two breakthrough EPs, Stridulum and Velusia, in which Zola Jesus removed the shroud of glum production and cracked open the full potential of her operatic vocals in a glittering sea of somberness. Now on her second formal release, Conatus, Zola Jesus is again reemerging in a new formation from the shadows of twilight -- This time made to be heard by the masses.

"Swords," the glitchy, instrumental Reznor-esque opener, acts as more than just a precursor of the album's sound, but a foreshadowing of the creative process Danilova undertook. The chanteuse admits she once considered making this effort completely wordless and while she inevitably did not, there's substantially less lyrical detail and more repetition in verse during the first half of Conatus than in the dark symphonies that emerge toward the end ("Avalanche," "Vessel," "Hikikomari," "Ixode.") Those tracks are not fruitless by any means, and instead retool Danilova's crestfallen vocals rather minimally to compliment each songs' electronic bloodline.

With so much emphasis having always been put on the strength of Nika's muscular voice, it's a bold risk that forces a pleasant revaluation of expectations throughout the listen and a greater appreciation for the moments that meet them. "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake," "Skin" and closer, "Collapse" are Conatus' most obvious standouts in terms of production climaxing to meet the emotional level Danilova's vocals can reach. By including an ocean of echoes, heart strings and / or the simplicity of a piano, it harvests Zola Jesus' most accessible work to date. "In Your Nature" and "Shivers" don't leave fans of the dance-driven driven direction heard on last year's twosome of EPs out in the cold either, as they too graduate Zola Jesus into a higher degree of cohesion and rhythm.

Collectively, Conatus brings to the table both raw, organic ideas and the betterment of preexisting ones for Nika Roza Danilova, proving without a doubt that the second coming of Zola Jesus and her unique vision of gothic pop is something worth believing in.

Zola Jesus' Conatus will be released October 4, 2011 on Sacred Bones Records.

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