If there’s one word we could use to describe the work of Zola Jesus – aka Nika Roza Danilova – it would be viscous. Her sound can oftentimes take the form of tortured, impenetrable sludge that doesn’t seem particularly welcoming to ride (from artwork to obscure titles), but those who do will never stop marvelling at its destination.
Her latest album Okovi certainly doesn’t shy away from any drama. After a reserved and cloistered opening, Zola Jesus is on typically bulldozing form on Exhumed. It’s as if Danilova herself has breathed life for the first time in ages, surrounded by intense strings and a sense of menace and dread that encapsulates our entire description above.
But what cuts through as always is the incredible woman at the helm. On the track above it’s Danilova’s impassioned delivery that we stay for, communicating even delicate registers of emotion as that voice razes the world around it. On Witness, strings underline her deep tenderness, one that’s arguably present in all her work when you look for it – though this one is particularly stunning, an utterly haunting ballad that really will find no modern comparison. This is why Zola Jesus is who she is, and this is one reason her work seems so vital.
Occasionally there are colder moments, times where the gothic aesthetic seems much more enjoyable in Danilova’s world than it does in our own. Soak is one of those, but Siphon bridges those worlds with more direct missives like “we just want to show you there’s more to life… we’d hate to see you give into those cold dark nights inside your head”. There’s something slightly cultish about it, but there’s certainly a conversation about society’s treatment of mental illness to be had around it.
So yep, not by any means is Okovi a light listen. But this is Zola Jesus, and this what we’ve both come to expect and love from her. There’s no pandering to pop moments (though Remains comes brilliantly, brilliantly close), but arguably that comes at the cost of emotional connectivity. That’s ultimately our biggest criticism of Danilova this time around. She lords over the dark recesses in which she’s comfortable, but it that viscous sludge can once again seem isolating and not for everyone; still, she owns the entire sound and space like its her own, and in music’s fake climate we’re certainly very grateful for her presence.