Zola Jesus – review

Toynbee Studios, London

On record, Zola Jesus sounds vast and ancient, like a deep-seated and nagging ache. In the flesh, though, she cuts the kind of figure that could save a fortune by not paying any VAT on her clothes. This LA-based singer and electronic auteur may be all of 22, but she could easily fit into the garb of a 12-year-old – one with a taste for high-end white ponchos. Christina Aguilera is famously tiny, but in a small-off, Jesus would trounce her by three inches.

She strides onstage tonight, a 4ft 11in flap of bleachedness, tailed by a black-clad trio of men playing keyboards, laptops and live drums. Jesus and her apostles are notionally celebrating the release of her accomplished third album, Conatus, but it's the kind of celebration in which a whispery, rapt audience is squashed into retractable theatre seating, rather than pogoing in the aisles to the tunes with beats.

This intimate community hall is off the live music beaten track, and the stage lighting does not extend to colour, lending an even starker visual edge to an intense performance. The white lights leave Jesus nowhere to hide, except behind her hair. She stalks the stage like a caged cat, occasionally leaning against a speaker stack for support. Despite alluding to her nerves when she does briefly speak, Zola (named after Émile, not Budd) Jesus (named after, well, Jesus) spends a brave amount of time roaming around the room, head down, like a ghost stuck on a vexing cryptic crossword clue.

Jesus, then, is tiny, but her voice is not. Soundbites about the work of this artist-to-watch concur around a gothic Bonnie Tyler, and certainly, she can open her throat and unleash a hero‑seeking gale. There's an octave leap on "Ixode" tonight that pins you back in your seat. Machines supply some backing vocals, but Jesus can replicate the sound of multi-tracking by just opening her mouth.

The sombre hue of her songs, meanwhile, and the industrial bent of her music, make that pesky goth tag hard to duck. Also, she used to be an actual goth (as this picture attests). Born Nika Roza Danilova in rural Wisconsin, she gravitated towards the darker side from an early age. After years of opera training and a degree in French and philosophy, she pinged on to the international quality radar last year with the release of her second full-length, Stridulum II. She went from being one to watch to actually being listened to, joining a clutch of headstrong bleached blondes coming up from the underground – fellow Russian-American Kreayshawn and the ballsy EMA.

Stridulum and its successor, Conatus, though, are far more elegant and emotionally satisfying works than 80s vintage goth fare, or its 90s reanimation – the billowing rock angst of Editors or White Lies. They are classily sorrowful things, full of vaguely enunciated declarations of love, regret and yearning, buffeted by sombre electronics.

Tonight, "Sea Talk", from Stridulum, is still her most heartbroken few minutes, a track that is as beaten as it is beautiful. "No, I can't give you what you need," she sings, resolved. You might, lazily, want to lump Zola Jesus in with witch house, a chilly avant-garde digital current, but her sounds are far more approachable than those of bands such as White Ring.

In fact, there is a massive power ballad struggling to get out of "Night", probably her best-known song from Stridulum. Conatus, too, has its embryonic nearly-hits, with the busy "Ixode" leading a charge towards the dancefloor that separates this album from its predecessor. Obviously, it's named after a disease-carrying tick. "Seekir" even has a bubbling bassline that distantly suggests Giorgio Moroder and huge thwacking live drums to flesh it out.

These, though, are tiny variations in a body of work that, over the course of an hour, can get a little samey. Every Zola Jesus song is fundamentally woebegone, with slight leans towards hope, or the dashing of it. They are all a little bit industrial, and routinely feature wistful synth washes; you can almost assign percentages. "Vessel" is 44% industrial clang, 36% weary hurt and 20% moody chord-play. Jesus ends it by attacking her drummer's cymbal violently and then running off stage.

You leave impressed but craving more than a hair's breadth of difference between each song – one that was all wistful, or all menace, or all ice. Intriguingly, Danilova has a pop side-project called Nika+Rory, in which her mighty voice is put to more conventional backing tracks and even Auto-Tuned. Danilova clearly knows what a weapon she has at her disposal, should she ever choose to abandon her art for commerce.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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