Release Date: Aug 20, 2013
Record label: Sacred Bones
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The most startling aspect of Zola Jesus’ collaboration with composer/musician J.G. Thirlwell might not be what you expect. The thrill of hearing these electronic compositions arranged for a string quartet is palpable, especially on those tracks that eschew all other instrumentation apart from the Mivos Quartet’s two violins, viola and cello. But what truly takes the breath away is hearing Ms.
Inspired by a string quartet–backed performance at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Versions delivers what the name implies—alternate takes of songs from her back catalog. At times, Nika Roza Danilova’s opera-trained voice sounds overly formal against the string-only instrumentation. But the compositions benefit from her willingness to shed her electro goddess skin.
When Zola Jesus' Nika Roza Danilova was approached to perform at the Guggenheim at the close of her Conatus tour, she chose Foetus' J.G. Thirlwell to help her arrange her songs for the Mivos Quartet. It's a fitting collaboration; they're both artists with industrial music roots and a willingness to expand far beyond them. Thirlwell's versatility is well known, both with Foetus and in projects that span sound sculptures to scoring Adult Swim's Venture Brothers series.
When an artist re-works their material, the results are more often than not a disappointment. Such projects are not as straightforward as a cover, a remix or an acoustic version. When the original songs are as perfect as those of Zola Jesus (or Nika Rosa Danilova, to use ZJ’s real name) the idea of deconstructing and repurposing into alternative versions is enough to start series of palpitations.
Queens, New York, 2009: in a dark kitchen-cum-venue muraled with grimy rainbows, a young woman sat curled on the floor belting out her operatic soul to the ring of a small keyboard. In what seems today like a past life, this was Nika Roza Danilova, the now 24-year-old Wisconsin-bred singer-songwriter who makes music as Zola Jesus-- a vision planted with the noise-flecked seeds of Throbbing Gristle and gloomy Diamanda Galás that has since bloomed into widescreen industrial art-pop. This D.I.Y.
When bringing together two such eclectic, often esoteric artists as Australian avant-garde musician J.G. Thirlwell and Wisconsin's Russian-American experimental rock singer Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, there is an inherent fear that the end product could turn out to be messy, over-thought, and far too obtuse for its own good. Fortunately though, the creative minds of Thirlwell and Danilova have time and again demonstrated the capacity for enough good ideas to avoid such a pitfall.
Crikey, the Guggenheim. The ‘Temple of the Spirit’. Yup if you want to wrap up your world-tour shenanigans in style, it’s definitely preferable to do so at an illustrious Modern Art Mecca rather than the Nag’s Head Bar & Grill in Slough. If you can also do so with a swanky string quartet and a Zappa-esque, Gonzo genius with enough aliases to make you suspect he’s some subterranean supercriminal (Arranger JG Thirwell AKA “Foetus” AKA “Scraping Foetus off the Wheel” AKA “You’ve got Foetus on your Breath”) then damn Ma’am you’re flying home First Class.
Nika Rosa ‘Zola Jesus’ Danilova talks a good, high-minded artistic game, one that’s echoed by much of what’s written about her. It all serves to make her music appear more scary and imposing than it actually is. Scattered across her three previous albums are naggingly hooky and often commercially viable synth-goth-popera tunes; eight of them (plus one lyrically lovelorn newie, ‘Fall Back’) have been reworked for ‘Versions’, which teams Danilova with a New York string quartet and industrial-rock buzzard JG Thirlwell.
Nika Roza Danilova, who essentially is Zola Jesus, has had a fairly wide ranging musical career. Originally training as an opera singer, she turned her back on Wagner and Verdi and forged her own path in the electro-goth avant-garde, lending her considerable lung power and musical vision to a prolific range of releases including a split with Burial Hex and a collaboration with LA Vampires. With the breakthrough release of Stridulum II in 2010 Danilova changed tack again: channelling her powerfully distinctive voice and arrangement skills to a series of anthemic songs which rapidly expanded her fan base.
Zola JesusVersions[Sacred Bones; 2013]By Ray Finlayson; September 3, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetBringing strings into the mix often leads to the clichéd assumption of slowing down an artist’s music, drawing out notes for dramatic effect and poignancy. However, when that artist is Zola Jesus , the cliché doesn’t work, and that’s mainly down to her most talked about feature: her voice. Nika Roza Danilova’s music was never primarily slow, but the notes she sung were full of dramatic effect, and whatever she was singing about in her operatic, astounding voice was suddenly meaningful.
Like Neko Case or Antony Hegarty, Zola Jesus sings with the kind of timbre that gets listeners to describe her as “that voice.” Plainly put, she’s got one hell of one. Since debuting on Sacred Bones in 2009, Nika Roza Danilova has built a whole assembly of rusty industrial cages, only to break them open with those torrential vocals. Her catalog of classically-informed goth pop pits Danilova’s voice against its surroundings; inside songs like “Night” or “Vessel”, she practically bludgeons back the elemental chaos that unfolds around her.
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Nika Danilova's music as Zola Jesus has advanced so far in such a short space of time that she operates within a vanguard of experimental artists willing to think as far forward as they dare. The stentorian chill of her 2011 album Conatus finally fades in the face of Versions, an exhilarating release that commemorates her performance at the Guggenheim in New York, in collaboration with the avant garde creator/composer JG Thirlwell. As Danilova has explained, this commission offered a chance to both look backwards throughout her career and forge a new path through it: "Versions is about the bone of the music; taking approximations from past records and turning them inside out.
Nika Rosa ‘Zola Jesus’ Danikova has such a distinctive voice that it’s usually the centre of attention, but Versions’ brave re-working of nine of her previous tracks thrusts the gently avant-garde orchestral arrangements of JG Thirlwell and the Mivos Quarte into just as much limelight. Somewhat of an oddity, Versions represents Zola’s fourth full length, although UK debut Stridulum II was more an edit of her previous EPs, further proof of her restless sense of experimentation and perfectionist tweaking existing material. Stridulum II and its perhaps more straightforward follow up Conatus were critically acclaimed (and rightly so), but despite Versions technically not being new material, by doing away with the usual dark, semi-industrial synths it sounds sufficiently different and worthwhile.
The story of ‘Versions’ is a common one. Musician (Nika Rosa Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus) is given the opportunity to play New York’s Guggenheim museum. Musician decides to re-arrange her songs them with a string quartet. Musician recruits Guy, legendary experimental Australian musician/composer Guy (JG Thirlwell), to help.
When, last year, Nika ‘Zola Jesus’ Danilova was commissioned for a one-off performance in New York’s prestigious Guggenheim museum, she enlisted composer J.G Thirlwell – of Foetus and other projects – to aid in arranging her songs for string quartet. Reenacted live in the studio shortly after, the eight new Versions collected here sometimes enhance the original recordings, and sometimes detract from them. Rather than recruit from the classical world, the choice of Thirlwell for composer was presumably a kind of best-of-both-worlds deal.