There is a darkness present in the music of Zola Jesus, a thrumming tribalism that speaks to something primal and yet glacially distant. In that empty space, Nika Danilova’s voice exists, a strong tone that ricochets off the shadowy soundscapes, providing perhaps a glimmer of hope in the gloom.
Danilova played the electrified ghost during her 50 minute set at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. With her backing band flushed to the rear of the stage and clothed completely in back, Danilova flitted about in a white cowl, shaking her hands, pendant swinging at her neck and shuddering with breath as that enormous voice poured out of a frame of less than five feet.
As the heavy bass and shimmering keyboards backed her, Danilova concentrated on songs from her new LP Conatus as well as pieces from her triumphant EP of last year Stridulum. As a frontwoman, Danilova was hypnotic (especially when one could barely see anything in the room but her). At one point she stepped down from the stage, parting the crowd as she scurried to the rear of the club and back again. She said very little between songs, just the occasional thank you before becoming swept up again in the music.
If new song “Hikikomori” sounds as if it could come from Jónsi Birgisson’s solo record with its pulsing tempo, it certainly stood out as a new direction for Danilova and her Zola Jesus project. Less lurching than older songs, it still retained the atmospheric sweep of her older music but leaned heavier on hooks and chorus.
Danilova finished her short set with Stridulum song “Night” and new song “Vessel,” her voice strong and confident throughout the show. After a brief pause, the band returned to the stage for an encore that featured a protracted version of “Run Me Out.” Once again, the heavy, orchestral synths backed Danilova’s rich voice, its sound drifting up to the club’s balcony, becoming part of the rich wood of its walls. “Thank you for coming, Portland,” she said at the end and then was gone.
At the end of the night, my friends and I had some drinks at the venue’s rear patio. Just before I left, Danilova came out, still wearing her white cowl and shiny pendant. Even in the bright, artificial light, the singer looked of another world, her ivory clothes, pale skin and blonde hair a sharp contrast to the black skinny jeans worn all around her. She belongs in that other realm.
(Photos: Kate Goodacre)