Reviews: Rostam, Half-Light & Zola Jesus, Okovi

Two excellent pop albums from inimitable talents
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Rostam, Half Light

Departing seminal pop group Vampire Weekend may have been Rostam Batmanglij’s boldest and wisest career move. With his breathtaking debut solo album, Half-Light, the producer and singer delves into his new creative freedom to create a record that is at once challenging and familiar.

Half-Light hears Batmanglij draw from a number of diverse sources—from traditional Persian sounds to the lush string arrangements characteristic of Vampire Weekend’s baroque pop. The opening track, “Sumer,” is based on a sample of the 13th-century English round “Sumer is Icumen In”. A pulsating jangly beat and rhythmic guitar licks, interspersed by an ornate harpsichord arrangement, are accompanied by lyrics that seem to depict a rise out of a depressive episode. It’s a sparkling opening that sets the tone for the musician’s most revealing work to date.

“Bike Dream” combines glam-rock guitars and airy synths to create grounded steadiness among lyrics that convey senses of anxiety and insecurity when it comes to romantic relationships. Those feelings climax in the heartbreaking “Half-Light”, a rumination on modern love. Batmanglij admits to himself that there’s no future with his current partner, backed by soft piano chords and crescendoing, crunchy guitars.

“Wood” is Rostam’s oldest track, released on Soundcloud in 2011. Considering that he’s had six years to work on it, the song is one of the most sophisticated on the record. It also sounds like a Rostam song rather than something written for his old band. “When” is a simple, yet politically-charged song-chant, remarking on Trump’s America while challenging those who stay silent in the face of injustice.

While the album is beautiful both sonically and lyrically, in some of the tracks, Batmanglij falls into his older artistic patterns that feel played out. However, if you weren’t aware that he was in Vampire Weekend, this might not be as obvious. “Thatch Snow” has a beautiful string arrangement, yet eerily recalls the band’s 2008 self-titled record. However, Batmanglij’s solo work is a stunning debut marked by his signature musicality, clever lyrics, and an appeal to the love and humanity in each of us. B PLUS

Zola Jesus, Okovi

In Slavic languages, okovi translates to “shackles.” In Okovi, the fifth studio album by goth-pop musician Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, those shackles seem to signify the bond between life and death. The album is dark musically and in subject matter, but Danilova finds beauty and hope in that darkness, creating a heart-wrenching masterpiece.

The artist is all too familiar with tragedy and depression, two concepts she addresses head-on her new record.

Okovi opens with the short “Doma,” and the echoey harmonic vocal arrangement, combined with the repetitive chant of “take me home,” give the song a peaceful, hymnal feel. However, listeners are soon dragged out of that false sense of security upon the first jarring notes of “Exhumed”. Haunting cries and aggressive, abrasive electronics. It’s an emotional release of anger and frustration, of confusion and loss in an increasingly volatile world. The track feels more reactive than reflective, yet it adds to the album’s overall theme in a way that doesn’t feel simplistic. “Exhumed” reaches towards something primal and relatable while simultaneously sounding terrifying.

“Soak” combines Danilova’s powerful voice with slow, wave-like percussion. In an interview with NPR Music, the singer said that this song was inspired by her research on serial killers and what it might be like to be a victim of one. However, this song feels more of a rumination on the meaning existence and a woman attempting to balance guilt and grief with supporting others close to her.

“Ash To Bone” is a bleak, swirling number reflecting on depression. Like Emily Dickinson, Danilova seems to be standing on the edge of life and death, in a constant and painful debate about where to take the next step. Throughout the record, the musician is wrapped in an existential crisis that never seems to resolve, heard especially in “Wiseblood” and “Remains.”

Okovi is not an entirely bleak album—there are moments of hope that glimmer brightly. The highlights of the album are those where the darkness temporarily recedes. “Witness” and “Siphon” are reminders that pain is temporary, that those struggling have people who love and care for them.

Perhaps one of the most macabre albums of the year, Okovi shines in its ability to beautifully illustrate a disturbing but ultimately shared human experience. A MINUS