December 20, 2017

Zola Jesus - Okovi

By Justin C. Regular readers will know that occasionally this blog features what I call metal-adjacent(tm) acts. It's not metal, but it's somehow connected. Maybe Kevin from Gorguts has an avant garde ukulele side project<.
By Justin C.

Regular readers will know that occasionally this blog features what I call metal-adjacent(tm) acts. It's not metal, but it's somehow connected. Maybe Kevin from Gorguts has an avant garde ukulele side project. Maybe it's a dark singer-songwriter who's a favorite of metal fans. In this particular case, though, it's a bit of a stretch. But, in a recent Decibel editorial, Neill Jameson mentions a "...diverse range of music from doom to various subgenres of punk to whatever you’d classify the gloomy sounds of Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus..." A black metal musician mentioned Zola Jesus: metal adjacency achieved!

I'm a long-time fan, so if this turns out to be as much a love letter to the music as a piece of criticism, then so be it. Zola Jesus is the project of Nika Roza Danilova, a woman who took opera lessons as a child but then turned that voice toward creating some of the most unique pop music out there right now. You can find quite a bit of info and critique about her work on the interwebs, but most of it's wrong. I say that because I think Danilova's influences are so diverse, and her meshing of them at this point in her career so seamless, that when everybody tries to do the standard, "She sounds like x and y," x and y turn out to be just tiny pieces of what she's working with. Yes, she's opera-trained, but her voice--the power of which could be harnessed to power a small-to-medium-sized American city--lacks the baroque ornamentation and filigrees typical of opera. It can sometimes seem unadorned, if it were not for the tasteful application of vibrato and the overwhelming emotional heft that's so evident in her singing. Yes, she often uses very heavy drums and bass, but neither make her "industrial pop" or "gothy dance music." Never mind the fact that, although she does use a fair amount of electronics in her recordings, she also uses live drummers and the occasional trombone on stage. So I'm not going to get hung up on any more twisted genre classifications. At its heart, it's genuinely inventive and well-crafted “pop,” as inadequate as that word can seem in the face of her music. Sometimes it's spartan, sometimes intricate, and it's always truly special.

Photos by Kmeron.

Zola Jesus's latest, Okovi (which translates roughly to "shackles"), was written while Danilova was struggling with a major depressive episode, and while some of those close to her struggled similarly. She's been candid about that struggle in an article on Bandcamp daily. Danilova wears her heart on her sleeve on this one, so it's not surprising that she wrote this during such a rough time. "Exhumed" opens up with viciously bowed strings--in a rhythmic pattern not unlike one of the mid-song riffs of Metallica's "One"--and Danilova herself provides a piercing howl that would have overshadowed Robert Plant's intro to "The Immigrant Song." The lyrics talk about fighting tooth and claw, literally: "Open the jaw and sink in deep / Force it open and claw the grip." The song slowly builds and adds a counter line, urging someone to "Let it sink / Don't let it hold you down," a symbolic action that most of us who have suffered from depression would recognize.

"Siphon"--a song written about someone close to Danilova who is also suffering from depression--has a chorus that's both chilling and hopeful, when Danilova pleads:

Cause we'd rather clean the blood of a living man
We'd rather lean over, hold your warm, warm hand
We'd love to clean the blood of a living man
We'd hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head.

The refrain, when a choir of harmonized Danilovas sing, "Won't let you bleed out / Can't let you bleed out," is enough to warm even my cold, dead heart, and I defy anyone to listen to it and be at least a little bit moved. Most music--at least most honest music--is about trying to express some feeling, maybe something ugly or just downright difficult to verbalize any other way. Expressing it might be as necessary for the artist as breathing. For me, Zola Jesus goes even beyond that--it feels like a genuine reaching out, even if that may sound a little melodramatic. Her music pushes me out of the somewhat-flattened range of emotions that often come with antidepressant use.

Earlier this year, I talked about how harrowing Cavernlight's album was, which covered similar emotional terrain. I've long been moved by everything Zola Jesus has produced (and luckily, a large chunk of her discography is on Bandcamp), but after spending the better part of this dreary holiday season with Okovi, I've come to see them as two sides of the same coin. Two albums expressing the same terror, rage, and maybe hope.

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