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Stidulum II
Zola Jesus Stridulum II
Released 20 August 2010
Producers Alex DeGroot, Nika Roza Danilova
Label Souterrain Transmissions
Genre Goth, electronic, experimental
Website www.zolajesus.com

The Goth genre is a much maligned entity but it has inspired some great artists and is now, like it or not, undergoing a renaissance. With her extended EP Stridulum II, Nika Rosa Danilova AKA Zola Jesus strives for euphoria in sound and an open expression of love lyrically that counteracts expectations of what a "Goth" album should be.

Coming out of Wisconsin, Zola Jesus has the tonal grandeur of a less histrionic Siouxsie Sioux. But what cuts her apart from the latter, on this record at least, is that she exudes heartfelt simplicity of emotion without resorting to metaphor or symbolism.

The opener, 'Night', mirrors this ascertain with its taut momentum by way of a balladeer’s inflections. "I’m on my bed/My bed is stones/But in the end of the night/We’ll rest our bones" Its themes of love, need and dependence manifest themselves in her stripped down but determined vocal delivery and lyrical expression. It’s probably the most immediate song on the album, propelled by a gloomy but beguiling synth rhythm. This is high quality dark pop music.

Although its soundscape is driven by heavy drums and droning keys, the album strives for escalating elation rather than oblique dirges that formulate a vast majority of so-called "Goth" records. 'Trust me' follows this template. The drum and synth progression and the loving words of care and comfort play dexterously against the somewhat mournful voice.

The title song holds the solution to the overall themes and sonic suggestions of the album. 'Stridulum', is a reference to a 1979 horror film about “the soul of a young girl with telekinetic powers that becomes the prize in a fight between forces of God and the Devil”. This dichotomy between darkness and light plays a centrepiece in the thinking behind the album according to the artist herself. Hardly an innovation in Rock/Goth themes you may think, however this is, for the most part, handled carefully and without resorting to clichés by Danilova.

Nevertheless she does not deprive the listener of pat Goth flourishes. The ghostly backing vocals and heavy industrial production rises from the periphery on the middle tracks. There is a definite sense of identification with her eighties influences. A vague presence of a spirit/demon evokes right through. Behind the insistent primal beat of 'Run Me Out' lies a choir of banshee-like backing vocals wailing through the dramatic mantras of the singer.

This is a very cohesive album which is usually an attribute but as one song slips seamlessly into another they become interchangeable. 'Manifest Destiny' with its cavernous ruminations could easily be 'Run Me Out'. Zola Jesus is almost dogmatic in her lack of deviation from the formula: dark rhythms that develop slightly into light, songs sung in deep infected tones that emote openly about love. Once you heard the first single 'Night' it replicates all down the line. This lack of surprise or innovation in structure is a minor criticism. Luckily the blueprint works and the quality stays consistently high throughout.

If one song summed up the tone of the album it has to be the re-recording of 'Sea Talk' from her 2009 EP Tsar Bomba. Reminiscent of Joy Division’s 'Atmosphere', a subtle euphoria is again achieved through a monotonous drum beat and synth sequence that underpins a sparse vocal delivery. Shimmering warmth is accomplished in the interaction between the deep but expressive voice, the lyrics of love and the chorus crescendos.

Whilst Zola Jesus may look all the part Goth chic, she has the voice and melodies to make a name for herself to a mainstream audience. This is a woman who is not afraid of honest vocal and lyrical emotion but hopefully in the future she can rid herself of the musical conservatism that threatens to derail her fine abilities. Overall here’s hoping to a full length album in the near future.

- Tim Gannon