Zola Jesus and J.G Thirwell – Versions (Sacred Bones Records)
DL / CD / LP
Zola Jesus recently released a a collection of her work adapted by legendary experimental composer and symphonic arranger JG Thirlwell, aka Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell. Here’s our review of it.
There was a time when Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, was being pegged as “Goth’s new figurehead.” Certainly, her 2010 album Stridulum II was a bleak yet glossy, shadowy coven of tracks, glimmering with coldwave synths and menacing electronics. And it didn’t hurt that Danilova played the part well – with a voice that could cast dark, potent imagery, posing for early press shots like a modern Siouxsie Sioux and citing philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s ‘Philosophy of the “Will”’ amongst her bedtime reading.
But Zola knew she was so much more than pops new poster witch. After all, this is an artist with a penchant for noise and industrial bands who studied opera for ten years. It was only a matter of time before she shed the Goth tag, and 2011’s Conatus, while not a marked departure in sound, boasted a new image and artwork awash with swathes of white veils and floating meshes.
Her fourth album is a step even further. Versions, featuring classical reworkings of Zola’s best songs, accompanied by a string quartet, is a collaboration with experimental composer and record producer, Foetus’ J.G Thirwell, with whom she performed at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Recently, Nika commented that she made this album to prove these songs “truly existed”. She’s talking about stripping them back to their bare bones and letting the vocal melodies speak for themselves, but could easily be referring to the fact that these songs are fully capable of breathing without the support of gloomy synth-work and dark beats.
It’s a far cry from the lo-fi crackle of debut full length ‘The Spoils’ that was recorded in her apartment, instead Zola’s breath-taking voice is given all the space it needs to creep into the highest corners and howl beneath glass ceilings. And although Thirwell’s avant-garde roster may include Nick Cave, Swans and Nine Inch Nails, rather than tie her to the morose sound she’s already mastered, his understanding of Zola’s intentions set her free.
Drums, which have contributed so much to her torturous sound, are used sparsely and non-abrasively. And whereas her voice once scraped along the haunting underbelly of ‘Avalanche’, here the song rings with aching amid elegant strings. Danilova’s vocals will always have a doomy, bruised quality no matter how many cellos are thrown at it, but the orchestral instrumentation removes its stress and tension, revealing surprising warmth. Her murmurs of: “You know that I’m tired, you know that I’m ill” on ‘Run Me Out’, atop violins rather than threatening synths, bathe the song in a positive glow rather than wretched inevitability.
Still, it would be easy to ask: what’s the point of Versions? There’s only one new song here: the admittedly lovely ‘Fall Back’, therefore the question begs: is this just a stop-gap album? Certainly, there isn’t an instance where a reworked track blows its original counterpart of the water and so much of Zola’s previous work was beautiful and steeped in drama anyway. Instead, the likes of ‘Hikikomon’ and ‘Sea Talk’ become all about the vocal performance. As a result then, it’s better to think of Versions as a means for Zola Jesus to explore her artistry, rather than an attempt to improve or even rework her music. In this light, perhaps Versions will come to define her more than any of her original material albums, after all, for Danilova, this is more about taking control of what kind of artist she wants to be, rather than allowing genre and stereotype take the reins for her. Now only a fool would dismiss her as just another ‘Goth-electro’ poster, this girl has well and truly moved from the dark into the light.
All words by Dannii Leivers. More writing by Dannii on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive.