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Review: Zola Jesus – Conatus

“Conatus” is an archaic philosophical term that refers to an innate inclination towards continued existence and enhancement. Fittingly, it’s also the title of Zola Jesus’ latest album, which sees the gothic singer-songer’s continued transition from the bedroom to the nightclub.

Her third album in three years, Conatus flows from the template established on The Spoils and Stridulum: synthetic ambiance, industrial percussion, and the operatic vocals of Nika Roza Danilova. Once again, the record is marked by crystal-clear production, as on Stridulum, that leaves only the hint of the dissonance and feedback on Zola Jesus’ earliest recordings. The shift between this album and the last is not as dramatic this time, but there is a greater focus on atmospherics and Danilova’s vocals as the dominant instrument. Due to this textural approach, songwriting has taken a backseat: the hooks of Stridulum, both captivating and melancholy, are not as readily available.

Musically, Conatus picks up where Stridulum left off. Synthesizer melodies are brooding and ominous, and electronics buzz and chirp throughout. Lead single “Vessel,” with its pneumatic effects and cacophonous, metallic outro are reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails (an influence throughout the album). Strings, haunting and mournful, add another orchestral layer to the compositions.

The most significant change comes in the percussion. On previous Zola Jesus releases, drums thundered and stalked, but were little more than a metronomic heart beat. On Conatus, the programmed beats are danceable, owing more to synth pop than Skinny Puppy. The shifty beat on “Shivers” is decidedly modern. But don’t be mistaken: this is still a dark record. “Seekir” goes from queasy sub-bass and morphing synths to danceable dark wave and back again.

While there may be some changes to the formula, the main attraction of Zola Jesus remains constant. Danilova’s voice is overwhelming but not overwrought. On “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake,” her vocals are powerful but with a hint of vulnerability (something you might not get from the strident title). Too often, unfortunately, layers of reverb and delay obscure her voice like a veil. It works in moderation (like the echoing overdubs on “Vessel”), but I much prefer the clarity present on the yearning but upbeat “In Your Nature.”

Zola Jesus has amassed an impressive amount of material in a short amount of time, seemingly recreating herself on each successive release. Conatus is the next step in that process. It may not reach the songwriting heights of Stridulum, but it plays in new sonic territory as comfortably as ever. No matter what’s next from Zola Jesus, it’s refreshing to watch a musician turn into an artist.

The Verge: Zola Jesus

For the last year or so, there has been a renaissance in lo-fi music, across genre lines. Whether making surf pop (Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls), chillwave (Toro y Moi, Neon Indian) or witch house (Salem, Mater Suspiria Vision), there is a premium on the bedroom recorded, four-track tape sound.

Nika Roza Danilova is a Wisconsin-born singer-songwriter who performs as Zola Jesus. Last year, she released two such bedroom albums, New Amsterdam and The Spoils, and garnered acclaim from the usual suspects. And for good reason – buried beneath fuzz, static and gothic drone is a talented songwriter with some serious pipes. The music is dark and mournful with melodies that remind me of Bat for Lashes.

Danilova cites Throbbing Gristle among her influences, and on her first two albums, it shows. She’s not afraid to push things into industrial, dissonant territory. There is an ambient uneasiness throughout, and with her music’s goth feel, it works. And while key elements of this style continue on this year’s Stridulum, she’s taken major creative steps forward, breaking out of the lo-fi box with style.

Throughout Stridulum (and the double EP of the same name), the focus is on Daniloa’s operatic vocals. Minor-key synthesizers waft over strings and piano melodies, stark and simple drums drone in the background, but everything operates in service of song. The album opens, appropriately, with “Night,” a mournful love song that is tinged with loss.

“Trust Me” and “I Can’t Stand” tread on similar sonic and lyrical ground, with strong results. The 808-like rhythm on “Sea Talk” harks back to earlier material, while the emphasis on vocal melody is definitely in line with the rest of the album; the “Poltergeist”-themed clip is yet another fantastic piece of video art.

With Stridulum, Zola Jesus is ready to burst from the bedroom to the big time. The prolific songwriter is back with yet another EP next month (Valusia). She opens for The XX and Warpaint at a sold-out 9:30 Club show on Tuesday, and then she’ll be touring Europe through November. And next time she rolls through town, she’ll be headlining.