Release Date: Oct 7, 2014
Record label: Mute
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Head here to submit your own review of this album. The faint, echoing reverb flecked vocals that open Taiga are just a mere glimmer of the past. A gothic, mysterious past that Zola Jesus is keen to shed on this, her fourth studio record. Like dispatching with the trappings of the city and running straight for the woods, Taiga is an immediate call for the wilderness - full of grand horns, sustained notes and an up-tempo, almost break-beat style beat that gallops into view, trips, picks itself up and continues head first to the wild.
“A lot of the songs are cold, but in the coldness you find warmth.” That was Nika Danilova in an interview way back at the start of this decade, but the simple sentiment is an effective shortcut into her work thus far in her outwardly doomy but achingly romantic guise as Zola Jesus. From her raw, bedroom-recorded 2009 debut The Spoils up to today, Danilova has carried with her the frozen soul of the deep Wisconsin forests where she grew up. Reflecting those dark expanses of pine, her gothic sound, awash with shuddering synths and dominated by her magnificent, regal vocals, emanates foreboding but hides a primal sensuality; a wise warmth glowing at its heart.
Musicians and trees go well together. Quite apart from the fact a lot of music is made from wooden instruments, those who play or write for them have been repaying the debt with odes to the forest for centuries. From the vivid scenes created by composers such as Beethoven and Sibelius to, er, Sting‘s plea on behalf of the rain forest, the green matter has been a consistently strong source of inspiration.
Over the course of Nika Roza Danilova's career as art pop maven Zola Jesus—which includes a stretch of three critically-hailed full-length albums in three years before the age of 23—the former philosophy student and Wisconsin native has cycled through abstracted, lo-fi industrial music (2009's The Spoils); chilly, off-kilter synth pop (2010's Stridulum II); and glitchy, distant electronica (2011's Conatus). Each turn of style never sounded ill-fitting; Danilova's songwriting, along with her gorgeously elemental voice, corralled these subtly disparate sonic textures under the sway of deceptively simple pop music. When she turned the rough edges of her back catalog into mini-symphonies on 2013's Versions, it's telling that not one of her songs lost any of its original power, but actually took on new dimensions and shades of depth through their transformation.
Sometimes, you just know when you’re going to like something. You don’t need to take it for a test run or try it on for size, you don’t even need to worry about the refund policy; there’s no chance of this one being taken back to the shop anytime soon. With bated breath, you hurry home to give it its first outing, ready for the good times to roll out, safe in the knowledge that they will - everything falls into place and your suspicions are confirmed.
On the surface, Taiga is easily Zola Jesus' most accessible album. With each release, Nika has peeled away the layers of noise blanketing her music; Versions, her orchestral collaboration with J.G. Thirlwell, also reflected her sound's increasing refinement. Taiga boasts her most honed palette of sounds yet, fusing brass and strings with beats and synths into a majestic yet poignant sound that recalls Björk's Homogenic, especially on the stately title track and "Hunger"'s frantic rhythms.
Before ‘Taiga’’s opening song skitters into an Aphex Twin-like barrage of glitches, cloistral calls herald the return of Zola Jesus, making a sound you’d imagine Lykke Li might if she busied herself with covens and witchcraft rather than U2 guest spots. A torch singer sonically shrouded in black lace, operatically trained Nika Roza Danilova’s fifth album borrows as much from Barbra Streisand as it does James Blake. Shimmering showtunes like the widescreen ‘Lawless’ and the magnificent ‘Hollow’ are veiled in darkness and sleek electronica while ‘Dangerous Days’ makes up for the title-track’s absence of an obvious hook.
To call Taiga, the latest album from Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus), a pop record would be equal parts accurate and misleading. After recording three excellent albums that had critics comparing the Madison, WI songwriter to dark wave chanteuses Bat for Lashes and Chelsea Wolf, Danilova strives for something more inimitable and renewed on her fourth album of original material. The resulting LP, the 11-track Taiga, partly fails to live up to this prototype as Zola Jesus mostly trades in one used genre for another.
'Accessible pop music' isn’t the first phrase that comes to mind when one mentions Zola Jesus. Pop influences have always been apparent but rarely at the forefront of her work, with Nika Danilova instead preferring to swathe herself in layers of gothic ambience and industrial electronica. Whilst this aesthetic is still present and leaves the listener in no doubt as to the fact that Taiga is still very much a Zola Jesus record, it is also apparent that she has undergone a huge stylistic change.
I really like Zola Jesus. I want to really like Zola Jesus. In the past, I’ve felt about her records the way Rose McGowan seems to feel in The Doom Generation when she stares into the cover of Blood by This Mortal Coil, saying, “I wish I could crawl in here and disappear forever.” Zola Jesus’ records feel like a digest from a barren, rough and synth-scored world I’d rather live in, continuing a massive tradition in goth-pop of creating something dark and brooding but accessible, making something beautiful out of ugly things.
Previously prolific, Zola Jesus (nee Nika Danilova) has slowed down in recent years. Not counting 2013’s Versions, which featured classically treated renditions of existing material, her last proper album having arrived in 2011. Where Versions seemed more or less in keeping with her previously established artistic direction, classical background and all, Taiga seems a bit of a detour in its venture into full-on pop territory.
Nika Rosa Danilova's Zola Jesus project has always had lofty ambitions, peaking with last year’s orchestral career-summation Versions and accompanying Guggenheim exhibition. After that, it seemed like her vision could take her anywhere—and “anywhere,” it turns out, was Vashon Island in Washington, where her latest album was largely written. For inspiration, she reached farther out still to the taiga—a type of forest typically found in Russia, desolate enough to border tundra and resilient enough to cover large swaths of the earth.
In the first installation of Pitchfork’s Soundplay series, We Were You, the player inhabits an avatar that can easily be imagined as Zola Jesus. Like the song that scores it, M83’s “Intro”, the mini-game sets its huge dramatics across panoramic winter vistas. You play a girl riding a mammoth into the silver horizon while Zola Jesus duets with Anthony Gonzalez.
Zola Jesus is trying to make a transformation happen on her fifth album. Unlike any of the Russian-American electro-goth star's past work, it's actually possible to imagine hearing the instant earworm ''Dangerous Days'' on the radio – at least if it were remixed down to the right length. Though the title track echoes with the dark vibes that have been her trademark, other highlights, like ''Go (Blank Sea),'' give her melodrama a tighter pop structure.
opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN On the pre-chorus to “Go (Blank Sea),” a track from the new Zola Jesus LP Taiga, as Nika Roza Danilova sings, “Doesn’t know the truth in you,” there’s a quiet little vocal track in the background where Danilova sings out a countermelody in the meaningless scat-derived syllable “doo. ” Maybe that doesn’t seem important, but what about the way a rapidly pulsating synth cycles through the chord progression on the second verse? Because that sounds straight out of the trance-ier end of ‘90s big beat to me. On the muted bridge of the same song, Danilova snarls, “And I said, no one can stop me now,” really leaning into that “now” with a nasally curlicue at the finish that I’m pretty sure is one of the early lessons in the Liz Phair Playbook.
Zola Jesus’ new LP is not an easy listen. And really, it shouldn’t be. Nika Roza Danilova is five full-lengths in now, including one ambitious orchestral rearrangement with J.G. Thirlwell. But Taiga marks a moment in Zola Jesus’ career when things are finally being done on her own terms. In a ….