36:20 min • Sacred Bones • August 19, 2013
Andrew Darley reviews
Just shy of 21 and studying for a university degree, Nika Danilova released her first album in 2009. The album was recorded during the thick of winter in the confines of her bedroom, accumulating in her electronic experiments and lo-fi textured recordings. Combining the names of one the most pivotal figures in world religion with an important writer of French literature, Émile Zola, her performance name granted a commanding and ominous presence.
Heavily inspired by science-fiction by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Tarkovsky and Fassbinder, her music and visuals have embodied an otherly, almost alien world. The cover to her second album Stridulum II remains one of her most striking achievements in her short career so far. The treacly black tar that drenches the singer morphed her into a creature of unsettling potential. As a graduate of Philosophy, her song’s themes often reflect the nihilistic concepts of her cherished authors whom resonated with her own understanding of life. Irrespective of whether the music was made in her bedroom by herself, or the bigger productions of her more recent work; there has always been inherent grandeur and touch of drama to Zola Jesus.
Four years on since her first release and three albums worth of material, she has decided to revisit and re-imagine some of her songs. The opportunity came about following an invitation to play New York’s prestigious Guggenheim Museum. Instead of playing a set from the world tour she had just stepped off, Danilova wanted to do something special to fill the air around some of the world’s most important modern art pieces. This desire led her to turn her electronic music into classical compositions. To help her do this, she teamed up with experimental artist, JG Thirlwell of Foetus, who has previously scored classical arrangements for his own project Manorexia. He appears to have been the perfect accomplice given his abilities in working with classical structures and his own experience of chamber pop that resounds with Zola Jesus’ music. Together, they took her songs and tore them down, rid them of their electronic backbone and restructured them with the power of the Mivos Quartet.
The new arrangements give each individual song a new breath of life and a refreshing weightlessness. ‘Run Me Out’ speaks of a person’s feelings of being torn down by someone. In its original form the pensive synthesizers and devastating vocal delivery encapsulate the sense of doom and claustrophobia that can arise after being emotionally exhausted by someone. However, the lively string arrangements and drumbeats that thrust to the song’s conclusion change the mood of the song entirely. Although the lyrics are exactly the same, its delivery shifts the perspective of someone whose spirit has been stolen but feels an emerging sense of hope. Elsewhere, one of her danciest songs to date ‘Seekir’ takes on a fantastic and unexpected disco grove by the intense violin of the quartet.
Without the signature electronic throbs and drum machines, these sparse arrangements allow Danilova to showcase the softer and delicate tones of her voice. ‘Avalanche (Slow)’ which opens the album is one of the most fragile moments of the singer’s catalogue as she intones of things coming to a crashing end. The album also features a brand new song called ‘Fall Back’. It’s a call to arms to be reunited with the person she loved in the past “I would do anything to be the one with one”. The song is reminder that even though her music may contain gloomy and unsettling emotions, it is her lyrics that make them enjoyable in their directness and increasing honesty.
The testament of a well-written song is when it can be stripped of all its production value and layers and can still pack the same punch in its skeletal form. If so, Versions is a body of songs that has passed the test and can be proudly upheld. Without failing to explore a new dimension to these songs, she successfully gives them new life that works, both separate and complimentary to the originals. Just like the white outfit with the neck lighting sculpture she wore to perform in the Guggenheim this year; these versions are clean, elegant and capture a little bit of magic.