Releases marking a stylistic shift are always fascinating to dissect, particularly when they serve as a bridge between two distinct sounds. Zola Jesus’ debut, The Spoils
, was a grim and haunted affair but it suffered from the suppression of Nika Rosa Danilova’s voice in a mess of fuzz. Their latest EP, Valusia
, featured cleaner production but also the loss of their darker texture. Between these two releases was Stridulum
, a short but immense work that displayed the best features of both.
It is remarkable how Zola Jesus have managed to streamline their sound on Stridulum
without losing its intrigue; gone is the unfocused, lo-fi abstraction of The Spoils
, but the dark, sinister sound remains and is pushed to the forefront. The two key aspects of the music, the downbeat industrial backing and Danilova’s powerful voice, work in harmony to striking effect. The band composes sparse industrial beats with rhythmic ticks and expansive synths and then allows Danilova to fill the space with her voice. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call her voice massive. She makes every lyrical phrase sound foreboding and propels each chorus to dramatic heights. This is most impressive on the closer “Manifest Destiny.” Continuing off the defeated mood piece “Run Me Out,” the first verse is hesitant and questioning. I don’t have a reason to go back home, so what am I supposed to do?
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the chorus hits and her voice soars above the thudding beat and dejected synths, reaching a higher plane of longing and despair. I have no idea what she is howling, but it doesn’t matter: it is just an unrestrained outpour of emotion.
The other songs on the EP follow a similar template: Danilova sings over droning synth notes with the utmost seriousness before she takes off in the choruses. This formula could be deemed one-dimensional if it wasn’t so engrossing, if she
wasn’t so engrossing. Furthering this intrigue are the various moods she invests in. On “Trust Me” she is forlorn, desperately reassuring a lover with her pleas of trust; on the title track, she yells with fiery abandon, sounding as though she is summoning a spirit with her howls. Melodramatic stuff, but by god is it convincing. It’s not easy to fall in love.