Welcome to the first ever edition of The _____ Chronicles! In this hopefully ongoing series I’m going to be doing deep dives into the catalogs of artists I like but haven’t explored enough. This is partially a way to jump headfirst into some daunting catalogs I’ve been putting off, but also a way to burn through some smaller ones, too. While the second edition will very much be the former, we’re starting with the latter: Zola Jesus. Imagine if I had titled this post The Jesus Chronicles? How pretentious does that sound!
Zola Jesus is really the moniker of solo singer Nika Danilova, though she’s usually backed by a consistent group. Though a recent artist and someone very much in the current zeitgeist, her music is more indebted to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Her music is often inspired more by industrial and goth than anything else, but with the incorporation of lush atmospheres and pop vocals. It’s an interesting combo, something that sounds both progressive and timestamped to 1986.
Zola was on my radar for a bit when I become a devotee to Sacred Bones Records, but it wasn’t until Nika started dropping some harsh truths about the state of indie music on twitter that I started paying attention. I’ve heard her most recent release, 2022’s Arkhon – which brought up the rear in my alphabetical-by-artist Best Albums of 2022 list – but I’ve otherwise not heard any releases. So, I’ll be streaming and reviewing the first five studio albums, in order. These are The Spoils, Stridulum, Conatus, Taigi and Okovi.
I really dug this record. The most immediate thing to note is that there’s some earlier songs attached to the end of it, and it does alter the listening experience. The album’s final tracks follow more conventional pop song structures, but with some very rough lo-fi recording. It’s not really an extension of what came first but an attachment, and it doesn’t super work – but the songs are good, so it didn’t bother me! “The Way” is actually one of the best tracks on the album, I think.
Okay, the actual album – I think this one came out of the gates hot. The opening track “Six Feet (From My Baby)” is the best one on the album and, if we’re judging Spotify plays as gospel, the most popular one. It’s got a classically industrial percussion beat but stops just short of the genre’s standard harshness. Nika’s voice brings in some operatic qualities, which is true for the whole record. “Clay Bodies” is a solid tune, enhanced by her best performance across the album. Due to the intentionally lo-fi production, the lyrics are always obscured by both the beautiful operatic vocals and the grainy fuzziness of the studio. It creates an interesting, paradoxical atmosphere of bedroom pop made for a stadium. It also follows a trend in bands like this, to eschew any qualities that might hotshot them into a big spotlight. Indeed, most of these songs are more vibes than anything, not playing into any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure and opting for dreamy soundscapes.
There’s too much – there’s a few too many of these songs and they do start to bleed together. And, with the inclusion of the very solid but different tracks at the end, the runtime is just a little bloated. But it’s still a very engaging and encompassing album – great stuff!
Favorite track:“Six Feet (From My Baby)”
This is a perfectly logical follow-up to Spoils. It does exactly what it needs to – ups the production and puts more of a focus on the vocals. Spoils used lo-fi production to make a statement, but it wasn’t a sustainable sound, really. The vocals on this record are crisp and clean, and the lyrics are actually intelligible! Nika’s voice is absolutely the standout, hauntingly operatic and yet compellingly melodic. Her voice is simply forceful and commands each track. There is also a focus on individual instruments, from the sparse drums of opener “Night” to the keyboards on closer “Lightsick.”
But, even with these changes, there is still a distinct lack of palpable pop qualities here. These songs are still very dreamy and hypnotic, even if they come closer to being defined as “ballads.” I’m not sure if the general affect works quite as well here, as it feels like too much of a good thing, and unlike Spoils I think this album is aided by individual standout tracks. “Night,” the title track “Stridulum” and “Manifest Destiny” are all among the best Zola songs I’ve heard so far. Naturally, these are also the songs where Nika’s voice is the strongest. I didn’t like this one quite as much as the debut, but it is still very tantalizing and I’m excited to keep plugging away.
Favorite track: “Stridulum”
This one feels pretty similar to Stridulum, so I won’t spend much energy here. It’s quite good! The biggest difference is a reliance on multi-layered vocals, we hear Nika harmonizing with herself on nearly every track. It’s super effective, and mixed with the crispest production yet, we get an album that is incredibly dreamlike. For all I know, this was recorded inside a cave. This also feels like the closest thing to a solo project, as the album relies even heavier on the vocals.
Where Stridulum really was bolstered by some great songs, this one feels like a more comprehensive record. The vibes work better than ever; this is a great album to throw headphones on and disappear into. I think she and the band are really finding their proper groove here, maintaining a consistent aura without falling into a repetitive trap. There’s pop vocals and traditional sounding ballads, all wrapped up in a completely hypnotizing dreamy wash. By this point the albums are pretty consistent, but this is the best one so far.
Favorite track: “Vessel”
Well this is the biggest outlier so far, so it’s fitting that this is the only review I’m writing a few days after listening and not in the immediate aftermath. This one was a frustrating listen, it featured all of Nika’s strengths but in more of a conventional pop direction. It’s a neat left-turn, a bit of a break from the system. You can tell that Nika is doing this as a fun new direction and an experiment to push the limitations of her sound. Her voice lends itself extremely well to pop tracks, as expected. This more than any other ZJ album sounds like the project of a solo star: vocals with a backing band.
All of that said, this really isn’t that pleasant of an album to listen to. A relaxation of the focus on the music makes these songs pretty half-baked and interchangeable. They’re not bad, but they just kind of exist and nothing more. This album feels like the latter half of “one for them, one for me.” I think it was maybe more fun to produce than it is to listen to. Still, it’s a solid record! This album really reinforces the power of Nika’s voice and how it transcends the little niche she’s previously hidden herself in. It’s a decent album, but one that I won’t be revisiting.
Favorite track: “Dangerous Days”
Alright, we’re back on track. I really loved this one. I think this one might actually be my favorite, also taking Arkhon into consideration. Unlike Taiga, there’s no real reinventions happening here, just the best version of the Zola Jesus format we’ve seen yet. Nika’s vocals are particularly operatic, and there seems to be a heavier focus on repeated lyrics. This adds to the already dreamy/shoegaze-y music, which comes in louder than on previous albums. Okovi is the antithesis to Taiga, in that it feels the most like a full-band affair. The two albums likely make for a wonderful back-to-back (unfortunately my listens were separated by a weekend).
I would highly recommend this one to anyone who likes anything in the dream-pop realm, Beach House and beyond. It’s also got some drone elements that chip away at the pop melodies. It’s maybe the most engaging of all the ZJ albums. And as this completes my catalog listen-through, I think I want to call it my favorite.
Favorite track: “Soak”
This was fun! As the first installment I can’t say how often or well I’ll keep doing these, especially since I’ve got some much bigger catalogs planned – but Bowie is up next. I hope someone out there has enjoyed this, and please check out the music of Zola Jesus!