Nika Roza Danilova grew up on 100 acres of forest in rural Wisconsin without the distractions of television or the internet. Aided by this simple, isolated existence, her imagination ran wild and seized control. Needless to say, Nika didn't turn out like most girls. She took an interest in opera at an early age and took lessons on and off for years. Now, fresh off studying philosophy and French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has relocated to LA and committed herself to a music project called Zola Jesus, a darkwave incarnation that fuses industrial noise and electro atmospherics with the infectious melodies of classic pop songs.
Only 21 years old, Nika has already released one LP (The Spoils) and a handful of well-received EPs and made fans out of Fever Ray, the xx, and Xiu Xiu (all of whom she's toured with), not to mention a legion of fan boys and girls on the music blog circuit. With Valusia, her newest release, Zola Jesus is moving away from the lo-fi grime of her previous efforts and into a more polished, pristine place (with the help of Chris Coady, whose production work includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio). But fear not, you can still taste the earthy grit of her older material in this batch of new songs.
In the first few moments of "Poor Animal," a spiraling laser beam worms its way into your ear. Soon, bouncy drum beats arrive on the scene, creating a downright dancey '80s new-wave vibe. Strings begin to creep in as Nika unleashes the most powerful instrument in her arsenal, her booming voice. As the instruments gain strength and blend with her bellowing vocals, your head space gets louder and more crowded, all the racket punctuated by repeating cries of "Delusional!" Just as your eardrums begin to grow accustomed to the buzz, it starts to dismantle itself and Nika's voice strips down before crackling into digital static. And that's just the first song! With full-bodied, visceral tracks like this, it's no wonder her EP only needs four songs to stay afloat.
The tone shifts as "Tower" drags your feet off the dance floor and into the murky depths of the river Styx. Dramatic keys and menacing synths foretell some imminent travesty, but "Sea Talk," the EP's addictive first single, comes to the rescue just before any blood is shed. Nika puts her decade of operatic training to use here, emotional depth dripping from her pleading howl. (Be sure to check out the song's hair-raising music video above.)
"Lightstick," a beautiful piano ballad that serves as the EP's closing song, starts with a simple question: "Is it over?" It's the vocalization of what the listener might be feeling, the regret and disappointment inherent in something being over much too soon. As Nika's voice quiets and fades into the ether, the veil is once again lowered over the enigma that is Zola Jesus. Before you can take hold of her or ask her to take you with her, she has vanished as quickly as she came.
Zola Jesus has created a dark, intimidating collection of songs that challenges and tests the boundaries of discomfort. She has carved out a chilly, cavernous space that she then masterfully fills with reverberating theatrics and one hell of a voice. Her songs might be cold to the core, but there is warmth underneath it all, the kind of heat that blooms across your face and chest as you're about to freeze to death. If this is what death sounds like, maybe it won't be so painful after all.