First listen – Zola Jesus, ‘Conatus’ (Souterrain Transmissions)

There’s a genre I like to call ‘cloak music’. It’s not necessarily anything to do with sounding ‘gothy’ in the sense of late-post-punk black-clad guitar bands. It’s not necessarily to do with being emotionally ‘dark’. You don’t have to be a practising witch, or consort with familiars of any kind.

Zola Jesus

It’s just music, that when you hear it, makes you want to put on a cloak (or any similar long-sleeved, flowing garment) and… swoop. Austra is cloak music. Bat For Lashes is cloak music (with a side order of hipster banshee). Zola Jesus’ Nika Danilova, however, is undisputed queen of industrial cloak. And she’s back with the follow up to last year’s ‘Stridulum II’, ‘Conatus’ (due out September 26), so iron out your bell-sleeves, brethren, and get your chilly flounce on.

Timorous drums, a ghostly, choral backing vocal and slight glitchy, beats are battered by Warp-y, robotic clamour in this short intro track.

That familiar church organ-ish synth sound and again those ghostly backing vocals support that gorgeous, rich voice, every vowel full to bursting with the immediate pain of loss. “Fill my heart, fill my body with love” pleads Nika.

Hiccuping treated vocals and knife-sharpening industrial sounds give this the feeling of a cybernetic warrior’s marching song. Cold and relentless, it ends in a collapsing barrage of cochlea-mutilating noise.

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I actually knew what Hikikomori meant without having to look it up, but only because there used to be a band called Hikikomori Broadcast. It’s a Japanese term for people who withdraw entirely from social life. In contrast, this song is uncharacteristically outgoing and synth poppy; it wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on the moodier corners of La Roux’s album, with a proper build and release up to the chorus.

OK, I had to Google this one. It’s a species of hard-bodied tick, nature lovers. This one has a warm bodily, ambient feel (now I’m just thinking about blood-sucking insects, eeeew) with an almost trancey beat. It’s mostly about the background layer of vocals on this one – the top layer is kind of deadened and restrained but what shows through underneath is radiant and effusive like those stained-glass scrape-off pictures you used to do at primary school with loads of bright crayon scribbled over in black… black… BLACK!

Despite a meditative start, with monkish chants, it’s positively dancey, this one, with much in it for fans of Cold Cave to bop along moodily to. There’s even keyboard handclaps, ffs.

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‘In Your Nature’
A pulsing beat all low and subtle gives way to a big warlike tribal drum; it’s pure late Joy Division/New Order, pure ‘Ceremony’ in fact. It brings, that said, a much more euphoric note to her work as opposed to just agonized or yearning. Oh, what’s that the lyrics are saying? “If it’s in your nature / You never win”. Cheers, Nika.

‘Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake’
With a title like a line from one of TS Eliot’s saucier scrapped drafts of The Waste Land, this is a big Bonnie Tyler-sings-the-works-of-HTRK power ballad with a hammering, repetitive chorus. “The need to know it takes you over / The need to grow it takes you under,” sings Nika, tapping in to the album’s stated themes of the evolutionary drive to live (the meaning of ‘Conatus’).

A very IDM-ish glitchy feel and a compulsively singable hook that emotes messily all over the spasming circuit-boards.

Just piano, major reverb and all-encompassing self disgust, Nika seeking to mutate right out of her flesh: “Skin, off, off/I’ve had enough” she moans, before the song fades out brokenly into an ambient fog.

A big bright fuzz-wall with a tiny throbbing heartbeat at its centre, and Nika’s voice ringing out brazen, Siouxsie-ish. “It hurts, oh it hurts to let you in… oh it kills me and I don’t, I don’t wanna give in anymore”.

Such is the nature with which Nika’s voice dominates her work, it’s hard to notice the differences here to ‘Stridulum II’ at first; they’re mainly subtle and in the detail. Repeated and closer listens, though, reveal a more layered work, and if it’s not a revolution in sound, it’s definitely its own compulsive little world, with potential to be a possessive grower.

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