Label: Sacred Bones
I think we’ve had our last gasp of any sort of Indian summer here in Seattle; the second Saturday of October, in all its anachronistic sunshine, boasted temperatures that were just above jacket weather, so it was nice to be driving around aimlessly, windows down, as I was that day. But this Monday morning, the darkness of marine clouds returned to the Emerald City, as did temperatures below 55 and a leaky faucet’s drizzle of rain. It’s in a setting such as this where Zola Jesus’ Conatus reigns; full of determinate, icy soundscapes, Nika Roza Danilova’s powerful, intense vocal presence calls far and wide over the theater of the mind, where we sit, bundled up a little warmer since August, turning our thoughts ever more inward as we contemplate the change of the season.
Conatus is the third full-length offering from Danilova, whom at only 22 years of age already has a discography the size of well-respected, well-established bands or artists. On this record, released once more via Thurston Moore’s Sacred Bones label, Danilova pushes forward in her unmistakable sound, though her compositions seem to be buffed to somewhat more of a crystalline sheen than on past efforts. The knee-jerk reaction is that this would not be a welcome change, and also, somewhat exemplary of a cognitive dissonance considering everything I’ve ever heard from Sacred Bones was ear-shreddingly lo-fi and/or psyched-out. On Conatus, Danilova’s chilly atmospherics are simply that – atmospheric – just in a different way than labelmates the Men’s sort of all-out aural assault.
In Conatus, Danilova, 4’11” with a background in singing arias, typically creates dimensions of sawing strings, swelling synths (live as well as mechanical), synthetic percussion and the occasional sequencer, wherein she wails usually with plenty of reverb as though she’s some supernatural entity struggling to be heard on our own terrestrial plane. “Swords,” an instrumental introduction, places us firmly within mid-’80s Depeche Mode territory, its disembodied Martin Gore-isms replaced with Danilova’s throaty pipes. “Avalanche” continues in this vein, percolating electronic percussion mixed with enormous echo and layers of Danilova’s coos and ahhs. “Hikikomori” at first recalls moments from Kate Bush’s masterpiece The Hounds of Love, shifting eventually into cascades of pristine sound, Danilova’s voice cracking ever so slightly; it’s the first time on Conatus she sounds human and not demigod. “Ixode” begins interestingly with the indie starlet scatting and “Seekir” is the rare moment where rhythm is the main element at play.
The memorably titled “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” provides the closest thing to a hook on Conatus, its vocal acrobatics sounding like something of a goth Beach House, unconcerned with evoking any sense of the warmth that was key to the lushness of their Teen Dream. Still a very young, developing artist, Danilova’s songs here at times still sound like backing tracks for her expressive vocal performances – something of a mix between Diamanda Galas’ arresting uniqueness and the sullen girlishness of Siouxsie Sioux. The Zola Jesus name is on an upward trend, to be sure; Danilova will have her masterpiece when her songs’ quality matches her voice’s uniqueness.