Review Summary: An exercise in the act of cathartic release.
When it comes to describing Zola Jesus’ sound, oftentimes I find myself lapsing into a series of uncontrollable syntactical histrionics (see - already guilty as charged). Next, I lose all the critical credibility that I ever had as I spiral in and out of the vortex that is my own linguistic vanity. But even if I were not wont to match Zola Jesus’ apocalypse-invoking performances with a few ostentatiously-worded passages of my own (guilty again
), any attempt on my part to quantify Conatus
, the experimental duo’s latest record, would likely require me to give at least some
passing reference to the manner in which they successfully melded their post-industrial heritage to a set of well-worn Gothic sensibilities. However to do that would be to render Zola Jesus a massive disservice: the band's craft is one that is recognizably human, and to distill it into its composite elements – in the manner of a scientist unfeelingly parting an inanimate chemical compound – smacks to me of both unnecessary and bottomless irreverence.
So permit me instead to backtrack a little and consider Zola Jesus from afar, for even within the range of the band’s accomplishments there are still some sizeable gaps worth exploring. The largest of these chasms, surely, is the alienating production behind 2009’s The Spoils
, whose notoriously lo-fi production never could appeal to the thin patience of the masses. Heck, even lead vocalist Nika Roza Danilova’s own parents agreed – famously shrieking “Why is the quality so bad?! You need to get into a real studio!” at their only daughter. Elsewhere, the Valusia
EP, demanded too little and lacked the certitudes of a band on the cusp of its third LP. The pair’s insistence – once again – on exploring notions of bleakness and despair, while not entirely unexpected, was still a bit of a cop-out. Thus, it was of no surprise that the EP ultimately washed ashore a mere week later – putrid, bloated, and blue; all debts paid in full.
But for every failure there has been a success of equal measure: the brilliant Stridulum
EP above all, but almost as important, if not more so, was the manner in which Stridulum II
marched purposefully towards both philosophical clarity and mainstream accessibility. In both releases, Danilova’s sonorous trappings – long regarded as the biggest weapon in the band’s commendable arsenal – were in their element, effortlessly performing a sinister baroque that was both massive in manner yet threadbare in aesthetic. Elsewhere, the way in which programmer-in-chief Alex DeGroot integrated his synth pads and drum machines into the mix was at once slightly retro yet meaningfully futuristic – which is to say that both he and Danilova were always hinting ominously at the possibility of even greater things to come.
is thus made extremely difficult to scan. On one hand, the members of Zola Jesus have retreated deeper into themselves in order to produce more of their trademark work, yet few of their previous works ring with the same sort of impassioned fortitude. Despite this being her third full studio outing, Danilova still intones her lyrics with the magniloquence of one only recently possessed; yet the manner in which she presents herself is more dramatic than ever. Deeper in the mix, DeGroot finds symmetry and balance in everything, compulsively preening and chopping up even a simple opener such as “Swords” until it is able to swing from resolute calm to pure chaos in a matter of seconds.
Massively arranged soundtracks to impossible sonic daydreams are all the rage here on Conatus
. One number in particular – “Shivers” – has Danilova mouthing malformed phrases that are so utterly incomprehensible that one is likely to lean back and check the temperature of one's forehead. Yet the manner in which the track’s hi-hat beat surprises – by creeping right up to a wall of cavernous reverb and stopping mere inches from it – makes for a terrific first impression. There are also instances where the band appears more likely to bust out the perfect pop tune than cart us away into cathartic bliss: during the chorus of “In Your Nature” for instance, Danilova presents us with the sort of languidly indifferent refrain that has all the gloss of a Lady GaGa hit but none of its meandering emptiness. “If it’s in your nature…you’ll never win
,” she explains, leaving us to wonder if all our struggles to improve ourselves will all be in vain.
But even when viewed independently, the songs themselves are remarkable. Mid-album track “Seekir” is at once visceral and haunting, featuring the kind of weirdly shimmering vibe that always seems to be stuck halfway between being a Nine Inch Nails anthem and a dancefloor hit – as if it simply can’t decide which way it wants to swing. Elsewhere, although “Ixode” can’t quite outmuscle “Hikikomori” from being the album’s centerpiece, it demonstrates Danilova's and DeGroot’s ease at swinging back at forth between the former’s massive, flesh-and-blood delivery and catatonic digital samples. It's the kind of unbridled joy completely worth losing all your music-reviewing chops for - as long as you get your point across: that this might just be the best damn thing that you've listened to all year.