(This review combines photos of a Washington, DC show with narrative describing her Los Angeles show).
A hipster heavy crowd has made their way to the El Rey on a Thursday night to take in the latest offering from one of LA’s own, Nika Roza Danilova, (or, as she is better known, Zola Jesus).
Avant garde instrumental music alternates with electronic discordance as we approach 10:15pm, her stated set time. That time passes, and those in the half-full room (chalk that one up to a super busy night on the concert calendar, #Obamajam, and pricey tickets) cool their heels for an additional 15 minutes. As the curtain rises, she rises from the floor, her back to the audience in front of a structure resembling what might result If Frank Gehry designed a translucent teepee. Her flowing black garments help fill the stage and allow for greater expressiveness. The brief introduction leads to spastic dancing, like Lykke Li on meth, as she starts the show with a salute to arboreal endurance, “Taiga Intro.”
A horn section of variable size creates ominous undertones; sometimes they’re funereal, sometimes they’re less emotionally morose. The drums and keyboards to her right offer spatial ambiance and staccato pulses that push everything forward. Quickly, as it turns out.
All of a sudden pop emerges out of the avant garde as “Dangerous Days” makes an early appearance on the set list. Mallets pound toms as she paces about the stage, languidly and purposefully. Her second time through the chorus, the audience begins to respond, joining her in her newly obvious — if limited — embrace of pop.
She dials it back with “Dust,” and it’s now evident that she’s playing her latest record — Taiga — in sequence. As she leans into the slow jam, her voice relishes the spotlight as she lurks at the mic, backlit and mysterious.
“All the dust will settle in this new world now / We can make get along together.”
We’re done being contemplative, for now: it’s time to get loud and bounce. “Hunger” serves as a metaphor of sorts, perhaps an explanation for her sojourn into pop even as she keeps one foot firmly planted outside the mainstream.
She offers up a few brief words about her new album, her words immediately forgotten in the thunder that immediately follows. Her vocals are pristine; she has a hell of a voice, and she’s not afraid to use it.
“Thank you for coming LA.” Her voice hearkens to those classic Hollywood broads, their pithy statements on the silver screen slightly below the expected pitch and totally arresting.
And that’s the thing about her vocals, whether spoken or sung: they’re beautiful and slightly removed from what is expected. Invariably, they stop you in your tracks and force you to take notice.
It’s evident that Danilova is more comfortable and assertive on stage than she was when supporting Conatus, her last album.
The aforementioned translucent teepee is lighted from within, and its ambiguous purpose now seems to hint at symbolic metaphor.
She strikes more than one Jesus-on-the-cross pose in the songs that follow, a sacrilegious affectation that still feels a bit awkward, even all these years after Madonna went after that priest.
Drums echo provides expansive blasts and sometimes they’re a bit spooky, like an IED explosion that destroys all in its path. Her voice shoots through the clatter with immediacy, emotionally attacking whatever didn’t fall the first time around.
The sound is perfect, a noted contrast to some other experiences in this venue. Which, is a good thing because, in particular, her Dead Can Dance moments rely upon a finely calibrated balance of disparate tones.
It’s rather impossible to not think of Florence Welch at points….like the one where she exclaims, “SET ME FREE!” It’s both an exclamation and a declaration, actually, an ethos and a manifestation of the moment. It’s intentionally epic, largely orchestral and obviously the product of a strong musical education.
Her set closes with “It’s Not Over,” a song with pop inclinations but delivered on her terms. Its layers aren’t mainstream pop, even if this approach has increasingly been adopted by some of today’s top hitmakers. (If anything, she could scratch this itch with greater vigor and make a bigger mark in that world…Her voice should be highly sought-after — if it isn’t already — by every EDM producer on the planet looking for a little high-end punch in their dance tracks).
A brief exit leads to a four song encore. The first track — “Clay Bodies” — is for her and hardcore fans, as is often the case with solo artists, but the next (“Vessel”) brings shrieks of recognition and a palpable sense of joy in the room. It is an ecclesiastical presentation with shades of Tori Amos, herself no stranger to religious references. Spastic dancing and its attendant catharsis return, replacing her elegiac on-the-cross poses. She allows applause to linger before taking the show out on her own, less lofty terms. “Night” dips back to 2010 and delights her long-time fans, offering one more symbolist moment in a performance full of them. The room empties, symbolism meeting reality in the cool night air.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
Hirshhorn Museum, October 17, 2014, Washington, D.C.