Nika Danilova, who releases music under the pseudonym Zola Jesus, is paradoxically one of the most acclaimed artists in her field and also wildly under-appreciated by an industry that prioritizes artists who fit neatly into established archetypes they can easily market. Her music combines an classical, operatic approach to vocals with foreboding, yet entracing electronic-tinged instrumentals; it pulls from genres including darkwave, neoclassical, industrial and techno, as well as historical and cultural music traditions like Gregorian chants, in an attempt to bridge the gap between music’s experimental future and its elemental past. At the same time, she clearly has always known how to write a knockout pop song, and for years after her breakthrough Stridulum EP, listeners like myself kept waiting for a mainstream crossover moment for Zola Jesus that never quite arrived. Despite this tweener status that plagued her career for many years—too pop for some experimental music purists and too weird for the world of more corporatized pop music—her 2017 album Okovi was validation for true Zola Jesus believers, a project that unites the many different styles her fans expect into one incredibly satisfying album experience.
Last week, the newest Zola Jesus album Arkhon arrived via her primary label home Sacred Bones Records, and it simultaneously picks up right where Okovi left off and serves as a significant turning of the page into a new chapter in her career. While Danilova has served as the sole auteur of her work as Zola Jesus for most of her career, for the first time, this new album is a true collaboration with two other musicians: producer Randall Dunn (known for his work with Sunn O))) and on Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for the film Mandy) and drummer Matt Chamberlain (a session musician who has played for David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and many, many more). It wasn’t easy for Danilova to give over partial control of her songwriting initially, but a particularly bad spell of writer’s block forced her to step outside her comfort zone and try something new, and the people she picked couldn’t have been a better fit for her sound, demonstrating the heights she can reach with the right collaborators. Arkhon proves that, more than 10 years into her career, Zola Jesus is still just getting started, and thus it feels like the perfect time to look back and rank the best songs from her impressive discography.
Zola Jesus’s relationship with pop music and how she fits into that landscape has always been complicated. Her decision to sign with Mute in 2014 to release her attempt at a full-on pop record, Taiga, was met with a mixed critical reception, with some saying that the attempt to streamline and brighten her sound had sanitized the appeal of her music. Taiga doesn’t feel like an outright misstep as much as it feels like an artist tying her own hands behind her back in an attempt to assimilate into what pop music is “supposed” to sound like—which is what makes the self-assured confidence of “The Fall,” from her new album Arkhon, feel so liberating. The word “funky” is one that would have never crossed my mind to describe her music at any point previously, but this song’s groovy bassline somehow fits perfectly into the Zola Jesus universe. I didn’t quite know what to make of this track on my very first listen, but before I knew it, it had become one of my favorite tracks she’s done to date, as the hooky pop appeal of this track is not coming at the expense of her signature gloomy atmosphere.
Tasked with picking a list of 10 killer Zola Jesus tracks, you could easily just choose the entire tracklist of her 2017 album Okovi. The album, whose name derives from the Russian word for “shackles,” is the moment where Danilova was finally, as she put it in an interview, “getting to the point where I am fluent in all of these things, and I can finally use music as a means to communicate what I want to communicate.” Few songs reflect that as well as “Soak,” which marries a trip-hop-inspired beat with string arrangements that are as gorgeous as they are imposing and ominous; with lyrical imagery of a woman choosing to drown in the river, rather than face another, more horrifying fate at the hands of an assailant. It’s an often used symbol that appears across countless artistic mediums through the years, from paintings) of the Hamlet character Ophelia to movies like Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia, but Zola Jesus breathes new life into the trope with her songwriting and her spellbinding, guttural vocal performance. It seems impossible that a song this bleak in both subject matter and instrumental palette could also be this catchy and satisfying, but that’s the magic trick of this music.
After “Doma,” the choral ambient piece that gently begins Okovi, the album’s second track “Exhumed” is the moment the album really kicks off in earnest, splashing cold water in the listener’s face with staccato bursts of strings that are quickly paired with a stampeding industrial kickdrum and additional layers of drums on top of that. It’s easily the most aggressive song in her catalog thus far (or at least *was*, until one song on Arkhon we’ll get to later that rivals it), and the bracing instrumental approach of “Exhumed” is paired perfectly with a vocal performance so powerful that it’s impossible not to be at the very least taken aback by it. By the time the thundering drum hits cut out and the choppy strings are allowed to draw out their melody more fully, the splash of cold water has become a full-on baptism by fire, and as Danilova belts the lyric, “In the static / you were reborn,” it’s hard not to agree with her. Every time I go through this rollercoaster ride of a song, I feel cleansed by the exhilarating fury she delivers here.
Unlike an artist like Björk, whose lyrics often disguise the personal and emotional aspects of her work with more fantastical and mythological metaphors, the lyrics of Zola Jesus are comparatively stark and direct, even though Danilova also loves to pull from mythology and her own cultural heritage. Her new album Arkhon is named after the ”Gnostic idea of power wielded through a flawed god,” referring to those who “taint and tarnish humanity, keeping them corrupted instead of letting them find their harmonious selves.” But despite the heady philosophical underpinnings of her work, she never fails to successfully boil these ideas down into powerful mantras defined by their brevity and clarity. The best example of this from Arkhon is “Fault,” which is structured around the repeated phrase, “It’s not your fault.” The message seems to be something Danilova is trying to instill in herself by force, but the use of the second person makes the sentiment more communal, as if she is talking directly to you, as well, offering comfort. “I am / only human / And some things / don’t make sense” might feel like a pedestrian or rote set of lyrics if delivered by a less gifted and evocative vocalist, but Zola Jesus’ music often serves as a reminder that sometimes the most straightforward, unflowery sentiment is the most true, and “Fault” is a great example of how she is able to find power in that simplicity.
While I love the four-on-the-floor stomp of Zola Jesus’ breakthrough track “Night,” the moment where she really perfected her take on techno-inspired darkwave is later in her career, on the Okovi track “Veka.” Whereas the stomping kick in “Night” starts right on cue after a short instrumental intro, the haunting intro of “Veka” drags on for much longer, its techno rhythm emerging slowly from beneath from the ominous reversing vocal samples like a creature rising from the black lagoon. The intro of this song has a transfixing effect every time you listen, and by the time Danilova finally starts singing, you are already fully under her spell without even realizing it. From there, the song patiently builds to its thrilling climax, with an industrial club beat that kicks into full gear as Danilova belts out the song’s central question: “Who will find you / when all you are / all you are is dust?” It’s a clever move to pair the genre of techno, known for never-ending parties where the beat keeps going past the break of dawn, with a song so obsessed with the bleak reality of what we will leave behind in a world we are often powerless to change. “Veka” means “centuries” in Russian, and the song appropriately feels like something much more primal and ancient than the modern electronic music genres it pulls from, a signature of Zola Jesus’ career and especially Okovi.
While some previous Zola Jesus efforts struggled to find the exact right balance between their murky atmospheres, dance beats and operatic pop vocal performances, the penultimate track from Okovi, “Remains,” is the moment when she fully unlocked how to make those different elements of her style work in harmony within an accessible structure. The track is centered around a pulsating bass line fit for one of Robyn’s smash hits from Body Talk or Honey, only transposed into a minor key, delivering soaring catharsis and pop music satisfaction while still feeling plaintive and introspective. It’s the kind of sweeping, ‘80s-inspired synth-pop that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air and spin around the room with reckless abandon, but much like Robyn’s biggest hit, Zola Jesus is clearly still “dancing on her own” here, pairing her most maximal pop moment of the album with some of its most poetic and probing lyrics. Along with “Veka,” “Remains” is focused on an Ozymandias-esque obsession with what remains after we are gone, communicated most powerfully by the track’s second verse: “??Do ruins give power / Or do they give proof / That something meant more, something meant more / Than what we, what we lived through?”
While Zola Jesus often utilizes the steady pulse of techno music as one of the signature tools in her toolbelt, the electronic beats on tracks like “Shivers” and especially “Vessel,” from her album Conatus, have more in common with the misshapen and spiky drum patterns of Autechre. The beat of “Vessel” sputters and lurches forward, with industrial sounds textures clanging like an old robot being turned on and moving for the first time in many years. Unlike on her more cacophonous early noise experiments, her powerful voice rings out clearly and powerfully here—that is, until the song reaches a climax and her bellowing vocals are once again subsumed by chaos. In the same way this song’s hypnotic groove has a way over taking you over, the lyrics of the song describe a “Luster so sheen it pulls you in,” continuing this Faustian seduction until she begins bellowing the song’s incredible chorus: “And it surrounds everything / And it surrounds all your dreams / And it will take you to fears / You never knew.” The lyrical conceit and sonic palette of “Vessel” is literalized in the track’s music video, as Danilova lies floating in a pool of iridescent, shimmering black sludge that threatens to consume her entirely.
This track and its remix are a shining example of what a remix can do to deepen your love for an existing piece of music. The original version of “Ash to Bone” is immaculate, especially in the context of Okovi, but this simple flip from Johnny Jewell takes an ethereal and haunting two-minute interstitial that recalls the song “Glass Eyes” from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and turns it into goth-pop synthwave perfection. Listening to this less murky version over and over makes you appreciate how jaw-dropping this vocal performance is—every single time I hear Danilova break into that high note, I levitate just a little bit. Simply by replacing the string sections with a synthesizer and adding a skittering little 808 beat, Jewell gives this spectral track body and shape, allowing it to stand on its own in a way that only strengthens its connection to the original. Lyrically, “Ash to Bone” is one of the most potent songs on Okovi, communicating an entire world of meaning and emotion with just eight lines and no repetition. Just as quickly as this song busts in with its startling emotional lucidity and potency, it fades back out into the ether, “like strangers in the gray.” But in its remixed form, the track floats in an entirely different, but equally captivating way, a perfect demonstration of the versatility and dexterity of Danilova’s songwriting when placed into different contexts.
The presence of Chamberlain and Dunn is felt across all of Arkhon, but nowhere is the chemistry between Danilova and her collaborators as electric as it is on “Sewn,” one of the album tracks they wrote entirely together. The song sounds like a new wave track from hell, propelled by a driving, krautrock-inspired groove and killer percussion from Chamberlain, which Dunn pairs with a gnarled synth bass that surges forward like a growling animal as tornados of crackling noise tear across the track. Danilova herself almost risks getting lost in the cacophony, which only grows more dense as it goes along, but her voice cuts through the feedback and distortion like a siren calling you to shipwreck, bellowing louder and louder until the contributions of all three musicians become one beautiful cloud of noise. As talented and singular as Danilova is as a solo artist, what she and her collaborators were able to accomplish on Arkhon resulted in something greater than the sum of their talents alone, and “Sewn” is the best example of that thrilling synergy. More than anything else on the new album, this song has me so excited to see where Zola Jesus goes next, either with this incredible new backing band or with other potential collaborators. The possibilities are wide open.
I initially struggled with where to fit this song into a list like this, not wanting to devalue something so personal and intimate by assigning it a numerical ranking, but also deeply connecting to it. ”Witness” is a song about suicide, particularly inspired by a close friend of Danilova’s who attempted to kill themselves twice during the writing process of Okovi. Much like “Fault,” where Danilova feels like she is reaching through the music to speak directly to both the person she’s singing to and the listener at once, the lyrics of this song are addressed to her friend, practically pleading and begging in an attempt to “keep that knife from you.” It’s one of the most traditional ballads of her career, stripping away the synths and drums present throughout much of her output in favor of a string-focused, minimal arrangement that was chosen to intentionally reflect the timelessness of its message. The song is written from the perspective of an outsider who can “see your shine more than the dull you fear,” but this song clearly could only have been written by someone who has struggled with deep depression in their own life, someone who knows exactly what it’s like to need to be “pulled from the wreckage of your mind.” This is not a song about being someone’s savior, but rather, as the title implies, it is about bearing witness “to those deep deep wounds.” More than any other Zola Jesus song, “Witness” feels like something that will stand the test of time—the kind of song you never forget, with the potential to live on long after all of us are gone. Its sentiment will always be needed.
Jacqueline Codiga is a writer, podcaster, DJ, publicist and overall obsessive music dork from Los Angeles, California. You can follow her on Twitter and listen to her as a regular co-host of the Indieheads Podcast.