Zola Jesus are weird beyond their years

Gifted young electronic artists put a spin on minimal synth and gain a national following

Equally enamored of darkly seductive vocalists like P.J. Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux and caustic, lo-fi production, Nika Roza Danilova stands alone on the modern musical landscape as Zola Jesus. Her records are both melodic and experimental as the classically trained former opera singer attempts to reconcile her disparate—and in some ways, opposing—influences: her affinity for '80s niche genres like power electronics and minimal synth, as well as mainstream pop singles. Danilova not only stumbles onto some bizarre points of intersection but manages a unique coherence on her debut LP, The Spoils, and recently released EP, Stridulum. Hard as it might be to believe given such artistic maturity, Danilova is still a 21-year-old student enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While Danilova is undeniably gifted—she applied to Julliard when she thought she wanted to pursue opera as a career and has written all the Zola Jesus songs to date—it is her work ethic that is most impressive. She admits that she is intensely critical throughout the songwriting and recording process, a vestige of her classical training. "It can be humbling to be that self-critical," admits Danilova. "But it's also helped because it gives me an attachment to what I'm doing to take it seriously and put everything I have into it."

Fortunately, Danilova's Zola Jesus material reflects her triumph, not the untold hours making it. Much of that has to do with her gale-force vocals, which manage the rare feat of sounding both commanding and vulnerable in the same breath. They also act as a much-needed beacon amid the primitively electronic instrumentation. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chicago and New York City have been quick to embrace Danilova, especially the latter, where the Wierd Records stable of minimal synth artists has started to attract attention. While not strictly minimal synth, Danilova's ominous, industrial aesthetic was well received at her Wierd Night performance in 2009. "I definitely feel like I'm a part of that scene because I have a lot of interest [in it] and a lot of what I record I pull from that," she says, "but I never try to emulate minimal synth to a T because I think it really limits what you can do."

Indeed, Danilova's recorded output to date has demonstrated an uncommonly expansive vision and has allowed her to court genre enthusiasts as well as those unfamiliar with her sources of inspiration. The Spoils, her 2009 Sacred Bones-issued debut, is more esoterically inclined—the ravaged sonics deliberately smothering any overt pop gestures. The album's obvious debt to industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Zoviet France might make it too distressed for everyday listening, but according to Danilova, that's precisely the point. The Spoils' chilling low frequencies are intended to complement a very specific, unsettled mood.

By contrast, her recently released Stridulum EP offers a more accessible entry point. Where The Spoils is reticent, Stridulum seems more willing to engage, to accentuate Danilova's stunning vocal range and her facility with a pop chorus. "Night" is an eerie highlight, brilliantly obliterating the line between the broadly palatable and willfully obscure with Danilova's spare, ghostly vocal wafting above horror-movie stabs of synth. The EP greatly benefits from an improved recording clarity, which isn't due simply to an increased production budget. "I felt like I had said everything I could say in that [Spoils] voice and through that vehicle. I wanted to make Stridulum more song-based, not just about texture." Remarkably, Stridulum doesn't sound like a conscious bid for wider acceptance so much as a natural progression, which is a testament to both her ambition and how far she can comfortably stretch. If The Spoils and Stridulum represent the outer limits of her sound, she has left enough space for several careers' worth of exploration.

ZOLA JESUS play with Dada Trash Collage and Jabon on FRIDAY, JUNE 25, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775

 
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