Zola Jesus at Stonefly
The exact aesthetic of Zola Jesus (both the pseudonymous Nika Roza Danilova and her band) is difficult to determine. It’s at once noisy and melodic, abstruse but inviting, chilling yet surprisingly warm. This is mostly owed to the central dynamic at play: While her backing band is creating these subdued, funereal tones, Danilova’s voice — which is absolutely gigantic — cuts through the gloom and, while not undermining it exactly, adds an element of human feeling otherwise absent from the dreary synths and mechanical drums.
This dichotomy is paramount to the music of Zola Jesus. The dissonance is off-putting at first, but utterly captivating — and it is apparent from the start that this aesthetic is coldly calculated and these songs are knowingly, openly manipulative of their listener. There’s a strange sort of power play at work here, which, while not always successful, makes Zola Jesus one of the more intriguing acts in recent memory.
I came to the show not entirely knowing what to expect. In my experience, Stonefly (and its previous incarnation, Onopa) has had a spotty-at-best track record with shows I’m excited about attending. Shows are often plagued by bad sound and poor organization. When I attempted to see the Junior Boys in 2004, I arrived to find they’d played before the scheduled door time. The 2006 Akron/Family show suffered from one of the most nonsensical bills ever, as if the promoter had pulled names randomly from a hat and hoped for the best.
This non sequitur approach to booking seemed to be employed tonight as well, with the cloyingly cute synth poppers Faux Fir and the danceable but derivative Signaldrift opening. The former weren’t bad, just not a good fit, and the latter played for an entire hour while the crowd grew restless and began talking loudly over the music. The only thread uniting the acts seemed to be that they all used synthesizers.
By the time Zola Jesus finally came on, I was dead tired (thank you Radio Summer Camp for totally kicking my ass, by the way) and more than a little annoyed. It was obvious the band were feeling similarly, as Danilova complained openly about the venue’s failure to let them soundcheck and the poor monitor mix. One might be inclined to accuse her of acting the diva, but those who know first hand how frustrating a poor stage mix can be — with an apathetic sound guy to boot — will hold their tongues.
Luckily for us, she’s a master at transforming those frustrations into spellbinding performances, and it became impossible to avert our eyes. The handful of people who remained crowded toward the front of the stage, hanging on her every note. One of the more remarkable things about watching Danilova perform is how small she is, and how the sound she makes is so utterly monolithic — it is difficult to reconcile, and this cognitive dissonance parallels that created by her music.
The band — tonight consisting only of synth players Shane Verwey and Alex Degroot — were mesmerizing as well, and acted the anchor as Danilova’s performance became more and more histrionic, as she climbed atop speaker cabinets and at one point got so in-the-face of the soundguy that I almost feared for his safety. The set finally culminated with a series of wild shrieks and Danilova crouched, smashing a beer bottle on the floor. After a moment she stood, and the show was over. It would be several moments more before I regained my ability to speak, or to process anything other than what I’d just seen.
The performance left me feeling strange, almost guilty — as if finding beauty in something horrible. Coming home, I half expected the streets to be littered with dead birds. It would have been fitting.
Zola Jesus returns to Milwaukee on Thursday, opening for The Faint at Turner Hall.