Gone are the grating and out-of-focus textures of Nika Danilova’s earlier work, to be replaced by clarity, purity and—unfortunately—safety in these reinterpretations assisted by J.G. Thirlwell, says Daniel Jones.
Ask a goth what goth actually is and, almost invariably, you’ll never get the same answer twice. As an accepted and rather arthritic genre, the multi-faceted ideas behind the name have never quite gelled together, spawning long, pointless message board posts, ever-(d)evolving sub-groups and occasionally fits of incredulous laughter. Mention Zola Jesus, however, and most goths will answer in the affirmative: the music of Nika Danilova is goth as fuck.
Emerging in 2009 with her debut LP The Spoils, Danilova’s sound was everything that, over the course of a decade, had more or less been purged from goth music. The rawness of it all, the dirt and gut wrenching wails and dangerous, crazy sexiness translated through the medium of high-intensity low fidelity. It was a redefining of old tropes, as though you were hearing a Siouxsie album for the first time—drowning underwater (down the #seagoths) with a heart full of sewage. For those craving a new dark age after years of boredom, it felt like something wonderful being born. The rough medium of the message spoke to music writers of the time, each eager to present a new face to the buzz of Lo-Fi (itself already fading amidst an oversaturation of static in place of talent) and many entranced by the power of Danilova’s voice, apparent even through a thick filter of audio sludge.
Smash-cut to four years later, and Danilova has more or less wiped the mud from her countenance. Versions, her latest release, doesn’t just redefine the sounds and ideas that came before, it rips the whole idea of Zola J. up and starts again. Gone are the grating and out-of-focus textures. Instead we are delivered clarity, purity and—an increasingly important phrase in today’s world—high definition. The emotion is still there, however; it’s just coming from a different place, a new perspective. Led by the holy hand of industrial legend J.G. Thirwell (aka Foetus), the Mivos string quartet that forms the backbone of these re-compositions glides down amongst Danilova’s regal presence like flashes of razorlight, clean slices of sound that embed themselves into the skin from the opening notes of “Avalanche (Slow)”. That cleanliness is both the strength and weakness of Versions. Aside from new track “Fall Back”, most of what you’ll hear has come before, so whatever surprises await arise more from the differences in structure than the excitement of hearing something fresh. It’s rather like seeing a live performance, in fact, which is what the LP feels most like—though it lacks the immediacy of her presence. Stripped of their pummeling, barely-restrained aggression, songs like “Sea Talk” are given space to breathe for themselves, but none to suffocate the listener. Even as surface beauty is added, the beauty of poison is drawn out and, thoroughly spit-shined, the tracks become beautiful reconceptualizations that seem to say, “We belong here in this museum, to stand bright beneath antiseptic lighting. Ticket, please.”
As a reinvention/extension of her persona, Versions feels like a natural growth of an artist who never really wanted a genre tag in the first place, much less ones as restrictive and outdated as ‘goth’, ‘industrial’ or anything else of the sort. It’s certainly a curious and wonderful listen for anyone who’s ever been entranced by the majestic beauty buried in Danilova’s vocal cords. That said, I can’t say I’ve ever imagined seeing Zola Jesus in a massive concert hall. More to the point, I’m not sure I’d want to. It’s all a bit too high-def, too glossy… too safe. Though the journey is lovely and the work behind it impressive, it feels rather like Danilova is circling. I’m not sure if she’s eating her own tail, stripping away a former self or simply flexing the ghosts of old ideas as she compiles new ones, but these Versions look like another step in taking the Zola Jesus out of Zola Jesus, to be replaced by a palatably icy pop goddess with the power to entrance but little to intimidate. If the circling leads back down the sewer drain, however, I’d be more than happy to follow.~
Versions is out now on Sacred Bones. Stream two exclusive EB videos from Zola Jesus below.