LA Vampires & Zola Jesus

LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus

Say what you will about hipper-than-thou, hipper-than-all, Californian drone label Not Not Fun – its role as a flagship for some extraordinary female artists over the past half-decade has helped foster a colourful exception to that too-often observed rule: that virtually every rock genre should be a male-dominated affair. Through its venerable roster, featuring the likes of Pocahaunted, Inca Ore, US Girls and Heather Leigh, the hypnagogic noise scene of the West Coast has, if anything, assumed something of a distinctly feminine flavour. Fittingly, the label’s one and only compilation is entitled My Estrogeneration. And thus it is likewise fitting – perhaps even inevitable – that the young Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, aka the near-ubiquitous hot new thing on the block, should now be lured into the ring – for a collaborative EP with no less than Pocahaunted leader and Not Not Fun co-founder Amanda Brown.

Danilova’s most recent output – autotune knockouts with Rory Kane, the synthpop of Former Ghosts, and this year’s Stridulum (the lead single of which I’ve even heard being blasted out, I shit you not, by Radio 2) – has had something of a pop air. So for many the most immediately striking, even off-putting element of this record will be its brutal and uncompromising renunciation of clear melodies, hooks, and even discernable lyrics in pursuit of ethereal, unworldly, bass-driven bliss. Radio 2 material this one ain’t, as the fantastic opener ‘Bone is Bloodstone’ makes this clear from the outset. As layer upon layer of Danilova’s instantly recognisable and frankly alarming cries unfurl themselves, Brown instantly floors the listener with a weighty dub sledgehammer and proceeds to slowly, solemnly beat them while they’re down for the proceeding three and a half minutes.

Heavy stuff, then. Yet any suggestion that LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus is an especially impenetrable record would be misleading, and against the wider background of the US noise/drone scene – even the Not Not Fun stable itself – the collaboration betrays definite popist sensibilities. Compare the slow-grinding, mechanical, yet nonetheless eminently danceable whirr of the bite-size ‘Looking In’ to any of, say, Robedoor’s great crashing fifteen-minute sound tsunamis and the subtle sugar coating of Brown and Danilova’s codeine pill becomes all the more apparent. Indeed, the sedation on offer here bears closer resemblance to the recent phenomenon of blog-fetishised Witch House artists than anything from Brown or Danilova’s own lineage. Distinctive chopped ‘n’ screwed beats, eerie ritualistic chanting, that downtempo, grooveable low end, and yes, a tangible femininity all lend these seven tracks an atmosphere not unlike that evoked by Salem, OoOOo or White Ring, perfect soundtracks to midnight LA Sabbats over great cauldrons of cough syrup.

Nonetheless, the brief and immediate nature of these songs sometimes proves a little self-limiting. ‘In the Desert’, for example, sees the two artists wandering free and untethered through a sparse noise wilderness, their floating voices together exploring the spaces between their dreamy instrumental sounds. It’s a shame, then, that the track fades out after a mere 2:20, and there such explorations and their possibilities end – in such cases, lengthy sonic voyages like those of Brown’s Pocahaunted, particularly its incarnation before Bethany Cosentino’s departure, would be warmly welcome. Likewise, considering Brown’s domination of the instrumentation and the divorced nature of the recording – she in SoCal, Danilova in Wisconsin – it’s hard to escape the conclusion that LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus is very much her brainchild, and that the quantifiable extent of Danilova’s contribution – to state it cynically, a good twenty minutes of wails over Brown’s pre-recorded compositions – could invite some accusations of half-heartedness.

Such cynicism, however, would have to ignore the sheer emotional intensity of those very wails: still a bewilderingly affecting, heart-wrenching affair, no matter how many more times we hear it. At once seductive and spine-chilling, Danilova’s operatic howls swarm over this record like a flock of hungry vultures, diving in and out of Brown’s woozy dub jams and pecking voraciously at their bright red flesh. It’s terrifying. And it’s beautiful. And while Amanda Brown may no doubt remain the curator, puppet-master and voodoo fairy godmother of her Estrogeneration, there can be little doubt that Zola Jesus is its prodigal star ascendant, hurtling to who knows what heights in this, merely her twenty-first year.

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