Zola Jesus Conatus(Sacred Bones) Buy it from Insound
Stridulum II may not have been conceived as a 'proper' album, but that didn't stop it being one of last year's best. And as that breakthrough album was formed from the joining of a couple of pre-existing EPs (as well as taking into account Zola Jesus' relative prolificness) the fact that their next record has followed after just a year isn't surprising. What is a surprise (and a rather pleasant one at that) is that despite Conatus' swift arrival it makes for a more than respectable follow up to Stridulum II. Albeit not a remarkable one.
It would be true to say that there haven't been many changes in the Zola Jesus sound between the two records. Yet there is one, and it's a biggie, so much so that you can pick up on it just by comparing the covers. Take a look at the image that graces Conatus, in which Nika Roza Danilova (to all intents and purposes Zola Jesus) poses beneath a white veil, now look at Stridulum II's gory, or rather chocolate syrup-y, front in which she looms like the creature from the back lagoon (in gloriously lo-tech 3D no less!): where Danilova was happy to wallow obscured by filth and grime, now she's delicate, pristine and virginal, and it causes something of a problem.
Presumably Danilova's raised profile has resulted in her having a bit more in the way of cash and technical toys to record with, and she's decided to use them to slightly demystify Zola Jesus. Not that there's anything wrong with that in theory, it could even be seen as a brave move as it's easier to create atmosphere when hanging around in the shadows. But in practice the clean, thin production doesn't do any favours for her songwriting, in fact it reveals that she doesn't have a vast amount of tunes at her disposal. Conatus may be full of immaculately crafted moments, but not quite so many really striking ones. The only particularly memorable melodies appear in the forms of Seekir's very good pastiche of early Depeche Mode; the alternately grinding and bubbling Vessel; and the propulsive build of In Your Nature, which is the closest the album gets to its predecessor's more anthemic quality.
What's perhaps most surprising about the record's production is that, apparently, Danilova brought in Nick Johnson, the drummer from her live band, to help with the recordings, and yet you can't really tell as the thinness extends to the percussion. Sometimes it can be very interesting – such as the frantic hammering that makes up Vessel's closing section, or the militaristic stomp of Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake, or even the mechanical crunch that reoccurs throughout the album - but, for the most part, it sounds like it's formed of fairly standard and anonymous drum presets. While, again there's nothing wrong with relying on that sort of thing, it does deprive the songs of some much needed 'oomph'. The version of Avalanche that features here pales considerably when placed next to the Daytrotter Sessions take, which was given bite by Johnson's savage live drumming.
There is a reason that Zola Jesus can get away with some unremarkable songwriting and still come out with a very good review, and that is because their (or her) sound is ultimately all about Danilova's voice, a big, operatic, can't-believe-it's-coming-from-someone-so-small howl that fans of Florence Welch will no doubt warm to (and Florence detractors will find a little less grating, as Danilova's classical training provides her with a bit more in the way of restraint). It exists here in many forms, often multi-tracked, sometimes over and over to fascinating effect. For sheer drama there's Seekir's meaningless burblings in the background building and building into a wailing wall of sound by the climax, but more quietly gripping is Ixode's contrast of distant yells with a largely impassive main vocal that slowly repeats what might be the words “Baby don't go” like a catatonic disco diva, suggesting a sort of 'The Ego and the Id' conflict going on within.
That being said, while we're on the subject there is a (slight) problem that should be raised, as while Danilova is never less than passionate enough to keep the album slipping into the dreaded category of dinner party music, there still exists a sort of remove. As she reveals in Collapse's refrain (one of the more intelligible parts of the album) “It hurts to let you in”, so, for the most part, she doesn't. Previous records may have buried her in sludge, but she still managed to be mostly understandable and comprehensible; here she's shouting into the void (and when the record's USP is her voice it does mean that things run the risk of ending up a bit same-y). Ultimately Conatus makes for a very sensuous, luxurious forty minutes, but it's minor flaws like these that prevent it from hitting quite as hard as it could have done, and from being the unqualified success that Stridulum II was.5 October, 2011 - 07:30 — Mark Davison