Better Than: Being stranded in the Russian wilderness
As Zola Jesus, Nika Roza Danilova has spent six years honing a very singular craft that’s mostly unlike anything else in music. Approaching her vocal performance squarely from a pop diva angle, she’s often gone on to obscure or juxtapose it with moody, abrasive compositions that have earned her cred in goth and industrial scenes. Her releases on Sacred Bones Records all followed this formula, beginning in 2009 with The Spoils, then continuing through 2010’s breakout Stridulum and its attendant EPs as well as 2011’s Conatus. Each LP saw her advance from lo-fi bedroom recording to progressively polished, orchestral production, so it was fitting when she partnered with Australian avant-garde composer JG Thirwell to record neo-classical variations on her old material for last year’s Versions. She’s a performer who consistently thinks in terms of the bigger picture, and with her latest release, Taiga, Zola Jesus has gone full-blown panorama with an epic, wide-angle lens.
Likewise, her performance at Webster Hall on Sunday evening was expansive and enthralling, with a gigantic glacier glowing center stage. With six brass players in tow, as well as a guy manning synths and a drummer with a hybrid kit, Danilova was free to focus her energy on her dynamic, powerful voice work and shamanistic stage presence. Clad in a black frock with bat-wing sleeves that made for a dramatic silhouette each time she lifted her arms, it’s clear that Danilova still dabbles in a kind of dark artistry.
The atmospheric vocal loops of her new record’s title track swirled through the ballroom to open the show, and Danilova’s first and only lines in the song felt particularly appropriate. “Do you wish you could go back to it all?” she sang before answering her own question with the statement “I would never miss a moment;” seconds later, the song erupted into explosive drum ‘n’ bass, punctuated by the aforementioned brass ensemble’s panache. There was clearly no going back – Danilova flailed and stomped with total abandon on stage, tossing her hair wildly while strobe lights flashed in time with rapidly crashing cymbals.
In interviews, Danilova has often talked about the precise way in which she lays out tracks on any given album, unfurling them as a novelist might chapters in a story, each dependent on the last. In keeping with this rigid format, the band played Taiga in its entirety from beginning to end, with older tracks “Clay Bodies” and “Sea Talk” sandwiched together mid-set as some kind of intermission for longtime die-hards. If Versions proved anything, it’s that Danilova’s material is more versatile than one might imagine on first listen, and that she’s an ace hand at adapting her songs in new and brilliant ways. So while it was a bit surprising she didn’t try to work more of them into the set, her choice not to made it clear from the get-go that she’s more interested in supporting her work on Taiga whole-heartedly, giving the compositions their full due, eager to share them with what she hopes will be even larger audiences than she’s previously seen.
Vocally, Danilova’s performance has never been stronger, her delivery full-bodied and commanding, as though she was forcing her very soul out of her lungs and into the crowd. Her talent is unassailable and wholly hers; there’s not a performer that comes to mind easily whose voice has the same intense and robust qualities, with the exception, perhaps, of some Broadway performers. Danilova excels at building that same kind of drama, and her unflinching confidence in doing so extended into every aspect of the show, perhaps the greatest example of that occurring when she jumped into the audience during set closer “It’s Not Over,” tearing an erratic path through her bewildered and bewitched fans.
Having removed her platform booties, Danilova returned to the stage barefoot for an encore of “Vessel” and fitting swan song “Night.” From Conatus and Stridulum respectively, Danilova’s powerful renditions of these songs prove the point that Taiga makes so well: while Zola Jesus has always harbored hints of lush, theatrical pop, never before has the project been so stripped of its defense mechanisms – ghostly wailing background vocals, harsh electronic passages, squealing feedback – to reveal the operatic acrobatics that drive it all.
Taiga isn’t the bubblegum pop of Taylor Swift, but the more somber spots in Lorde’s or Adele’s catalogues are a somewhat closer comparison. Closer still is the drop-saturated single Grimes wrote for Rihanna, though she recorded it herself when the R&B superstar rejected it. If Rihanna had released “Go,” it would mesh seamlessly with Taiga‘s sound and motifs, and provide a rather handy reference for where Zola Jesus fits into the pop music framework. For now, the performer has carved an even deeper niche to settle into, but after years of crafting elegantly wrought DIY dirges, it seems Zola Jesus has found a perfect equilibrium between her past and present.
Critical Bias: Back when people had MySpace pages, you could embed a playlist in your profile; for the longest time, mine featured “Souer Sewer,” from the first-ever Zola Jesus 7″.
Random Notebook Dump: Witchy vibes of Zola Jesus + cheap Halloween decorations scattered throughout Webster Hall = way cheaper NYC “haunted house”
Overheard: “I’m jealous you got a Nylon and I didn’t get one.” – pouty person who did not get a complimentary magazine from the the many stacks situated throughout the Nylon-sponsored event
Go (Blank Sea)
Long Way Down
It’s Not Over