Nika Rosa Danilova, better known by her nom-de-electro-goth Zola Jesus, has been making her own unique brand of classically-influenced industrial pop (yes!) with an overarching dark side since 2006, before she could even legally buy cigarettes. Drawing inspiration for the cold, wide-open soundscapes she’s prolifically released on multiple EPs and full-length records since 2009 from the frigid desolation of a snowbound Wisconsin childhood as much as from post-punk and classical opera, Danilova’s releases effortlessly evade genre classification. They’re songs that evoke frozen, beautiful, empty places, songs of unfamiliar and sort of creepy but totally impossible beauty, songs that amound influences from Swans to Nietzsche – songs that really have no precedent. Now that Danilova’s reached the ripe old age of 22, she’s started to dig deeper into her poppier influences, and her third full-length release Conatus reads like an alien tribute to classic pop balladry. That is to say, it’s awesome.
You can’t talk about Zola Jesus without talking about Danilova’s voice, which is like Kate Bush pitchshifted down at least two octaves. When she sings unaccompanied or over loops of her own voice (see: the end of “Avalanche” when the song starts to sound like its title, an eerily quiet rush) she sounds like she’s singing a ghostly alto version of a classical aria. It’s a unique instrument in its own right – she opens “Vessel” with a heavily processed vocal collage that, for other singers, would probably end up sounding totally computerized; for Danilova, it’s an unexpected moment to show off her tremendous range.
Her electronic, hearbeat-pulsing backbeats, poppier (sometimes to the point of clubby) on Conatus than ever before, are simple enough to give her voice ample time to shine but complex and interesting enough to drive the instrumental moments along. Album highlight “Seekir” starts with an undulating bass drone as the foundation beneath Danilova’s rhythmic, chanted, almost spiritual croons before transforming into a bona-fide eighties pop song complete with driving, arpeggiated synths. It never descends into cheesy territory thanks to Danilova’s truly incredible pipes, whose cold depth never completely masks the warm intensity that pervades every note. When she repeats “I wanna go and I’ll never stop,” even as all the instrumentation drops out beneath her, it’s impossible to deny it. “In Your Nature” has the same gradual, string-bolstered growth to head-nodding pop without entirely losing sight of Danilova’s trademark infinite, cold soundscape. It’s when she integrates her pop sensibility into that gothic-industrial-classical (what a hyphenate!) mode that she becomes most accessible, and, we think, is at her best.
Conatus isn’t quite at the unabashed pop level of Danilova’s other project Nika + Rory with her touring bandmate Nick Turco – it is, after all, a Zola Jesus record. The power of Conatus lies in how it showcases Danilova’s pop sensibility without losing or short-shifting her unique, considered sound in the slightest. A perfect autumn record for watching the leaves fall.