A substantial number of gothic rock icons, from Siouxsie Sioux to Robert Smith and an especially hostile Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy, have long denied being goth-rock artists. Listeners, critics and hindsight say otherwise, but it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to be lumped in with darkwave’s more off-putting creatures, or a band like Fields of the Nephilim, known for dressing like the cast of “Young Guns.” But Nika Roza Danilova, the young, enchanting heroine behind Zola Jesus, has embraced goth-rock’s funereal ambience. Having gotten the look down early and wearing it well, Danilova has evolved in a short amount of time from creating noisy, lo-fi pop into a majestic and breathtaking art-pop diva, transforming darkwave’s moody atmosphere into something more powerful and beautiful.
Zola Jesus’ Stridulum, released earlier this year, was a stunning showcase for Danilova’s dense, yet ethereal songwriting. More importantly, it was a showcase for her rich, evocative vocals, which showcase a passion and command beyond her years, yet delivered with the kind of vulnerability that only a twenty-something can provide. Just a few short months later, Danilova offers up four more spectacular songs on Valusia, an EP which reveals just how quickly she’s maturing and evolving as an artist.
With Zola Jesus’ earlier, fuzz-driven singles all but a faded memory, Valusia is a much more elegant and sublime affair. Her vocals are every bit as heroic as they were before, still the driving force behind each dirge, yet the songs are more finely crafted than ever, both somber and uplifting, sometimes in the same song. However, shades of the past do creep into Valusia, namely “Sea Talk,” a track that was released in drastically different form last year. Where once the track existed as a noisy, dissonant dirge, here it broadcasts with the booming force of The Cure’s “Plainsong,” custom made for big venues and open spaces. That greater clarity and sonic expansiveness lends more gravity behind heartbreaking admittances such as “I can’t give you what you need all by myself.”
On the EP’s opener, “Poor Animal,” Danilova accelerates the tempo slightly and fires laser beam synthesizers as she requests, “Take me under/ take me down.” Sounds morbid, perhaps, but there’s a sense of joy that permeates from the song, the kind of aural magic that reminds the listener that the dramatic expression of goth-rock is often about celebrating darkness rather than wallowing in it. Yet the industrial-tinged “Tower” descends into murkier depths, layering on the synths in a breathtaking display of density and power.
With closing ballad “Lightstick,” Danilova reminds the listener that while she’s a creature of the night, she’s still vulnerable and very much human. And while some moments on Valusia are sinister, and others are fragile and spare, there’s not a single minute that isn’t absolutely gorgeous. Nika Roza Danilova may ultimately come to distance herself from goth as well, but for the time being, she owns it, turning pop music’s darkest most haunted tendencies into an affecting and mesmerizing art form.
MP3: “Sea Talk”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.