Sonic Space: Zola Jesus

By Maya Poddar, The Dartmouth Staff | 11/10/14 3:00am

Zola Jesus, the singing personality of Nika Roza Danilova, isn’t concerned with being easy, predictable or comforting. Listening to her new album “Taiga” is about as emotionally turbulent as something that you can do in bed can be.

“Taiga” is Danilova’s fifth full-length album — or fourth if you don’t count the orchestral “Versions.” Danilova took inspiration from the Russian forests — taiga is a large snow forest that covers much of the Northern Hemisphere — and the album stakes out a vast territory of sounds. Billed as a pop album, “Taiga” is in no way so typical. There are no saxophone beats layered beneath saccharine, shallow hooks. The classification only makes sense in the larger context of Danilova’s previous albums, as compared to those beat-driven, sparse vehicles, this polished exposition of Danilova’s voice is pop.

The title track’s intro is almost painful: the haunting, barely there vocals keep you on edge and the first long “dooooooo” that spills from Danilova’s mouth feels like balm on a burn. The long, dragging sounds of her voice pull you through a desolate soundscape on the first half of the track. While the introduction of a stronger beat pushes up the tempo almost too fast, it as quickly gives way to the menacing horns that dominate the end of the song. Keep in mind that this emotional rollercoaster only lasts about three minutes so whileDanilova may be jerking us around, she is most definitely not messing around.

The closest thing to a pop hit on the album is “Dangerous Days”. That said, it still falls firmly on the dark side of the pop spectrum — think Lykke Li at a bar after a bad breakup and too many drinks.

“Go (Blank Sea)” showcases the sheer range of Danilova’s voice, which sounds like it ranges through an entire octave in the chorus alone. The captivating nature of her voice makes you forget that the chorus is repeated about 600,000 times.

The one stumbling block on the album is the track “Hunger,” which seems simultaneously overproduced and rough around the edges. A mish-mash of choppy electro-beats with dramatic vocals, “Hunger” sounds awkward. It’s not challenging; it’s just strange. The raw material is there, and a good remix could make the track, but in its current form, the track is a jarring break in an otherwise cohesive album.

“Taiga” is an evolution for Danilova. Even with its coldness, the album reaches a level of warmth with Danilova’s vocals that hasn’t existed in previous works. Though it may not quite be a Billboard pop album, “Taiga” pushes Zola Jesus into newer, lusher territory and maybe one day, she’ll inhabit a space that’s slightly warmer than a cold, coniferous biome.

Maya Poddar, The Dartmouth Staff