Zola Jesus is the stage name of Nika Roza Danilova. She’s perhaps best classified as “ambient gothic rock” in the vein of Dead Can Dance, early Cocteau Twins, Siouxie and The Banshees and others. All of those bands were important before Danilova, 23, was even born. She was born in Phoenix and spent her childhood in a remote area of Wisconsin. She now calls Los Angeles home. I first learned about her in the autumn of 2010, when a Music Geek (Viva La Geek!) friend sent an email saying “this is exactly the kind of thing that you like”, in reference to her second album Stridulum II. He wasn’t kidding. I liked it a bit after listening to it on computer speakers, and in the car, and on a cruddy stereo at work. What really did it, though, was when I listened to the album through headphones while enduring a lengthy layover in the Atlanta airport at Christmastime 2010. What I had “liked” suddenly became something that literally took my breath away. I ended up naming Stridulum II as my #5 album on my list of my favorite 15 non-Canadian albums of 2010.
The anticipation for Conatus was pretty intense. Although the album leaked a few months in advance of the actual release, I didn’t pay any attention. I rarely do. However, the Daytrotter session came out a few weeks in advance, and I was gobsmacked by that version of “Avalanche”. My love for Stridulum II and my awe of that new song meant that the bar was set really high. Unfortunately, Conatus didn’t clear the bar. It didn’t even touch the bar. It sailed well below the bar. Enough of the track and field references, though. If you want to talk about pole vaulting, go talk to my niece.
We’re here today because of the brilliance of Zola Jesus. By the way, it’s worth pointing out that Danilova chose the stage name “Zola Jesus” in an effort to alienate her peers. It’s a combination of the french writer Émile Zola and Jesus Christ. She guessed correctly that a lot of people would consider the name to be sacrilege. Although she describes herself as an atheist, she acknowledges the importance of religion in people’s lives. Still, I’m not sure why she would want to deliberately alienate her peers. Sifting through the riff raff is one thing, and I guess this is a way of doing that.
Anyway, although I prefer her second album to the new one, “Avalanche” is a really amazing song.
Here’s the Album version:
Now… Hold onto your socks, because you’re getting the bonus extra credit. The Daytrotter session version. Seriously. Prepare to have your mind blown.
“Avalanche” (Daytrotter session) by Zola Jesus
Immediately, you’ll recognize that the Daytrotter session features live drums compared to the programmed ones on the studio version. There might be really rare exception to this, but I’ll take live drums over programmed ones any day of the week and three times on Mondays. It’s not just a matter of a real person. This is just better. I can’t even begin to describe how much I love the heavy, heavy hits on the choked hi-hat cymbal. It’s exciting as hell. I think I actually leapt out of my seat the first time I listened to that. I was severely disappointed, however, when I learned that the album version didn’t have the same drumming. Didn’t have a live drummer at all for that matter.
You’ll also recognize that the vocals aren’t as polished as they are in the studio version. I kinda like the imperfection of the live version. It’s more authentic and more passionate.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit of synthetic stuff going on in both the album version and the Daytrotter version, but I much prefer the live drumming. And I like the way that the cymbals are so loud. It’s like the rest of the kit is muffled or miked really weirdly. Whatever it is, I love it.
Of course this gives me another chance to urge you to become a member of Daytrotter. It’s $2 a month, and you get to download all sorts of cool exclusive music. Do it. Once you join, all of the archived Daytrotter sessions, including the Zola Jesus one, are yours for the taking.
You can buy a physical copy of Conatus from the Zola Jesus web store. Get your digital download from your normal legal downloading place.