Following up on our own recommendations
Tuesday night, I expected an encounter with a real goth queen – a dramatized personification of Stridulum II‘s thundering, thickly overcast sonic landscapes; an embodiment of the album’s Byronic voice, ever in the throes of either abject gloom or romantic ecstasy (Zola Jesus’ songs are typically an unsheathing of the latter from the former). The thought was enough to fill me with nervous anticipation. I made vague but overt efforts to mentally prepare myself on the bus ride over to The Independent.
Emerging a barefoot 4’11 in grey leggings and a sheer white shawl, the 22-year-old Nika Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) slipped out of these expectations in an instant. Casually declining to act out the specter behind her lyrics, she instead wavered between a staid professionalism – staring stonily ahead and hitting the notes – and loose-limbed gaiety, homing in on the energetic turn taken by her most recent work, Conatus. Dancing was encouraged. The envisaged scenes of rapture, torment and darkness were, in actuality, few and far between.
There were the incredible exhibitions of Danilova’s sultry and distinctive voice, delivered decorously from behind the mic (Danilova is opera-trained, and seems to possess the vocal chords of a woman twice her size). Surprisingly enough, though, the austerity that accompanied them (read: expressionless forward stare) didn’t so much work for Zola Jesus. It was Danilova’s unforeseen moments of vivacity that yielded the show’s most memorable experiences.
Gyrating to a headier, less nervous version of “Shivers,” Danilova appeared a regular pop star (maybe a little oddly attired). As one of the show’s highlights, during an especially beat-heavy rendition of Conatus standout “Seekir” the pint-sized star hopped off the stage and danced through the audience, effectively burning off any remaining murk and reconstituting the space as a club – an extroverted terrain quite opposite the one charted in the artist’s first two albums.
While Zola Jesus’ classical inclinations beset the band with some practical limitations (the orchestral strings that swaddle Stridulum II and Conatus were definitely missed), the four-member backing ensemble made up for it with a double dose of percussion: one acoustic set for the martial snares tribal whacks (“Vessel”), one electronic for the steady, gut-punching pulse (“Shivers”). This kept the tracks crisp, inspiring movement, not bodily subjugation as more muddled electronic wall-of-sound approaches sometimes do.
Her emphasis of the vivacious and the percussive over gloom and goth was, as in her newest album, a bold and successful move, rendered all the bolder by the fact that, not long ago, this very young performer admittedly suffered from intense stage fright. In the future, I hope to see her refine and elaborate the approach. Take it even further.