Zola Jesus, known in real life as Nika Roza Danilova, is a striking woman, with pale skin and long glossy black hair, dressed conservatively, almost primly by rock standards, and with a certain chilly reserve about her. She looks every inch the classically trained vocalist that she is – and so it is a bit of a surprise when she begins wailing into the mic, howling and keening above industrial abrasions of synth and drum machine. Like Jarboe in Swans, she floats arias atop a grinding mash of inhuman noise. Like Caberet Voltaire, she and her band perform obscure sonic rituals to mesh spirit and machine. There is, perhaps, a bit more frivolity implied in these dance-ish synth rhythms than No Wave ever allowed, but not much. If pop enters in, as it does sometimes in Danilova’s sweet middle register, it is quickly swamped by tides of distortion.
Zola Jesus – both the name of the band and the stage name of its singer – emerged out of Madison, Wisconsin in 2008 with two singles, a self-titled 7” and Soeur Sewer. Earlier this year, she and her band – Dead Luke on synths, Lindsay Mikkola on bass and Max Elliott on drums – recorded a full-length, mostly live at WNYU called New Amsterdam.
It’s a short career arc, so far, but within it, Zola Jesus seems to be moving towards ever more abstract, less naturally human songs. Consider the one song that Tsar Bomba shares one song with New Amsterdam, for instance. Here “New Day” lasts just over a minute (versus 4:28 on New Amsterdam). Instrumentation has been cut to a minimum. In the first version, live drums kept strident time and synthesizers washed in melodic waves. It sounded like a song. Now a programmed drum beat splinters and shatters dimly, in the background, and keyboards merely drone. Danilova’s voice has become both more central and more distorted, its gospelly strength chilled with a blast of echoey negative space. It is like blues sung from space, cold, distant and mesmerizing.
None of these tracks are built on catchy melodies, but rather rely on texture, mood and odd juxtapositions to get their unsettling points across. “Sea Talk”, late in the album, is the most accessible, its rattle and clatter beat partly obscuring Danilova’s bravura vocal swoops. “Do you want to know-ow-ow?” she belts, in a rich, pop-leaning voice, as someone hammers at a piano and the drum machine runs rampant. She’s a diva trapped in a metal stamping factory, an artist singing from the bottom of a well, frustratingly removed, but also, perhaps, more interesting for the distance. You catch a glimpse, occasionally, of the liquid beauty of her voice, trilling through the industrial waste of “Flesh” or haunting the very end of “Rester” with ethereal grace, and it’s like spotting a ghost, hair-raising, mysterious and fleeting.