Zola Jesus is the alter ego of Nika Roza Danilova, a 19 year old hailing from Madison, Wisconsin. The Spoils is her first ‘proper’ album for Sacred Bones (previous to that there’s a live album and a couple of hard to get issues from the Die Stasi and Troubleman labels), and it’s a remarkably mature piece of work, especially given Danilova’s young age. It’s certainly very difficult to be gothic without being ridiculous, yet she manages it effortlessly. The Spoils is dark, intense and frightening, always imparting dread yet at the same time ethereal and reserved. Despite training as an opera singer and having a voice that needs no veiling, Danilova’s vocals are brutally treated with effects and distortion and the production is a raw Albini-esque mesh of feedback.
Zola Jesus could easily be described glibly as ‘weird’ in the same way that Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle have been, yet Danilova’s work is so atmospheric that these lullabies of doom would translate very easily onto a film soundtrack. While mood-drenched, the tracks are not laboured – a couple fall short of two minutes – yet they never feel incomplete, more a momentary sentiment or passing aura. The song titles are deceptive, and seem to indicate hippy, Eart-mother themes. Names like ‘Tell It To The Willow’ and ‘In Hiding From The Crow’ wouldn’t seem out of place on an All About Eve album tracklist. However, while definitely airy, these songs are no dance in the cornfield. For example, should a filmmaker ever want to document say, the abandoned city of Chernobyl, they need look no further than ‘Tell It To The Willow’ for an accompaniment. Really, everything needed is there: isolation, desertion, death, horror and an evil that can’t be seen or touched.
And that isn’t a standout track in terms of desolation. ‘The Crown’ appears to use power tools as percussion, while ‘Smirenye’ has been treated with a relentlessly bleak production, raw and terrifying. But as much as the tracks are most definitely menacing, they never become frantic or raucous. Always the fear is chilling, underlying and intense without ever breaking into full on panic. Much like a thriller movie that shows no gore or actual violence (‘The Blair Witch Project’ comes to mind), but still manages to be completely anxiety-ridden. In fact, the perfect way to sum The Spoils up is thus: if a group of macabre-obsessed teens were to dare themselves to spend a night in a deserted building, in order to really freak themselves out, in the absolute best way, this would be the album to take along. A night with Zola Jesus should ensure maximum unreleased terrors, sights that would never manifest themselves other than in the mind.
[Sacred Bones; July 13, 2009]
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