Zola Jesus

Stridulum II

As far as snappy (or, if you prefer, lazy) media labelling goes, Hipster Goth Siren is one of the best. It’s the unfortunate tag Nika Roza Danilova seems to have been daubed with, placed neatly alongside the likes of ‘a modern day Siouxsie’ and an old favourite, ‘Ice Queen’. If we were to believe everything we read, we’d think that Danilova wafted around followed by a permanent cloud of dry ice, a whirl of black hair dye, sultry, pouting lips and floating dresses trailing long behind her in the wind. Admittedly, such imagery isn’t a million miles off how she actually appears, but it tends to obscure the music which, in this case, would be a very bad idea indeed.

As strong a crux as her image is, and everyone needs to be sold somehow, what really marks Zola Jesus out from the crowd is the sheer force of the music she creates. The songs on Stridulum II (essentially Danilova’s second full album, comprised of March’s Stridulum EP and a few extra tracks) make for a remarkably atmospheric set, a broody brew of pitch-black torch songs and despairing, lovelorn laments. It feels like the soundtrack to an indie version of Phantom of the Opera, or what Macbeth’s three witches might listen to if they had a stereo next to the cauldron.

Such comparisons might seem trite and callow, but they’re meant as compliments, nods towards popular culture, reflections of Danilova’s ability to combine darkness and light, to forge the worlds of pop and the underground. As tiresome as those Siouxsie comparisons may be, there is something to them. For the first time in quite a while, it seems possible that someone might once again take goth culture into the mainstream. Simply put, Danilova, on the evidence provided here (as well as on 2009’s fantastic The Spoils) has everything one needs to be a pop star. Whether she wants to cross that bridge or not is another step entirely, but one senses that, with the right exposure, Zola Jesus could be huge.

Listening to the likes of ‘I Can’t Stand’ or the tender ‘Trust Me’, it becomes quite clear that Danilova has the ability to create songs of some weight, anthems ready to be sung to hundreds rather than hipsters. She has a way with a lyric, the way that the greatest pop stars do, of saying something simple that could mean so much to so many – conveying the universal in one chorus or a snatch of verse. It’s not hard to imagine a festival crowd booming back the opening lines of ‘Trust Me’ to her: "When you’re lost/Never look down/When you’re lost/Know I’ll be around." Simple stuff, for sure, but it works. They’re songs that suck you in and hold you, touch a nerve, say something previously unspoken. And she’s only twenty-one. Imagine how much despair and world-weariness she’ll have experienced by the time she’s thirty. If it carries on like this, she’ll have everyone in tears.

The tie that binds all this together is her voice. It’s astounding, like something summoned from the pit of her stomach and filtered through velvet, a colossus rising from the deep. It’s an incendiary croon seemingly moulded from centuries of hurt. Hearing it for the first time is akin to hearing a voice like Antony Hegarty’s – it’s otherworldly, crushingly powerful, hypnotic even. It swallows you up, enraptures you. It, more than anything else in her impressive arsenal, is what drags you in and doesn’t let you go. Honed from opera training as a child, and subsequently ravaged by rebellious screaming, it’s a thing of fractured beauty, lending something like ‘Run Me Out’, an already very good song, something undeniably, spine-tinglingly great. Paired next to delicate violin stabs and ghostly wails, and underpinned by gossamer-soft synths, it knocks you off your feet, sticking in your brain as you tumble helplessly to the floor. It’s the voice of a diva in the truest sense of the word, a mix of Maria Callas and Florence Welch, designed to be sung wherever Danilova wants to go: opera houses or Glastonbury. Take your pick.

There’s no higher compliment to be paid to Stridulum II than to say that there’s no discernible weak spot, no one song which feels out of place, nothing that jars or leaves you cold. If anything, it only gets better. The final one-two sucker punch finish of ‘Sea Talk’ and ‘Lightsick’ leave you out of breath, ready for rest, needy for a moment just to sit back and take it all in. ‘Sea Talk’ is proper lump-in-the-throat stuff, siren calls and electric claps backing a last third which, if there’s any justice, won’t leave a dry eye in the house wherever she plays this year. "I can’t give you what I need all by myself" she croons at one point, that startling voice no longer anything but a cracking shield, unable to hide the pain and doubt lingering underneath. ‘Lightstick’, although more subtle than ‘Sea Talk’, is just as heartbreaking, a simmering ballad held together by little else other than a piano and that voice, a song of real beauty, a genuine jaw-on-the-floor final flutter, a final salvo that leaves us gasping for more.

Zola Jesus creates music for the night, for the winter, sounds to accompany the light as it draws itself in. Sitting now on the cusp of autumn, staring towards those barren winter months, it seems like there can be no other soundtrack. She’s a Giallo wunderkind, capable, it seems, of going and doing whatever she likes. After transforming herself from screaming hellion to cloud-scraping balladeer, who knows where Danilova might go next. She’s prolific, for one (her next EP, Valusia, is due out on October 12th), so it won’t be too long before we find out. Wherever she does go, though, the crowd following behind will surely only ever get bigger. And whether she likes it or not, she’s going to be huge. Goth goes mainstream, one more time.


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