Zola Jesus, "Conatus"

Sunday, 13 November 2011 00:00 Stephen Bush Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageZola Jesus (effectively Nika Roza Danilova) made a huge artistic leap in 2010, transitioning from the lo-fi, gothic post-punk of The Spoils to the sweeping, synth-driven drama of her twin EP releases, Stridulum and Valusia. The two EPs were a grand step forward for Danilova, upping the drama quotient with two fistfuls of dark, cinematic songs. Conatus continues her winning streak, functioning as a distillation and subtle refinement of the ideas put forward on last year's EPs.

Sacred Bones

Conatus (Bonus Track Version) - Zola Jesus

The album kicks off with "Swords," a prelude of clattering electronic percussion, bass punches, and a first taste of that voice—the most majestic, operatic thing this side of Diamanda Galás, it casts a dominant shadow over her music in a similar manner. On Conatus, Danilova has finally mastered the balance between her vocal strengths with her compositional abilities, in conjunction with co-producer Brian "Nudge" Foote. The two flesh out the album with a wonderfully diverse palette of sounds: tightly wound electronics, church organ-like synths, cello and violin, deep wobbly bass, and occasional industrial clatter.

Throughout Conatus, Danilova's voice is bathed in hazy reverb; at times it sounds like she's crooning to the heavens within a cathedral, at others she sounds like a spectre. She tries new tricks, notably chopping her voice to bits (see the intro to "Vessel," the album's catchy first single) and swimming within the album's interweaved electronics and stark beats. Elsewhere, she spotlights herself among piano, strings, and pulsing synths, like on "Hikikomori," the album's high point. Later, "Skin" is Danilova's most vulnerable moment yet on record, without anything to hide behind—just a few resonant piano chords, and her own ethereal background vocals.

Like much first-wave post-punk, to which Zola Jesus is clearly indebted, Conatus is at its most enjoyable when Danilova's hooks are at their most hummable. As the album progresses, a couple of its tracks come off as faceless and forgettable—typically in direct proportion to the hook quotient, or lack thereof. For example, "In Your Nature" is a pleasant Xerox of Danilova's ballad style, but lacks a memorable chorus to keep it from sinking. And while there's nothing quite as massive as Valusia's "Sea Talk" on Conatus, "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake" comes damn close, with a militaristic drumbeat backing Danilova's insistent vocals, peaking with a punchy chorus: "The need to know, it takes you over / the need to grow, it takes you under / again and again, it takes you over."

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Last Updated on Monday, 13 February 2012 00:49