Album review: Zola Jesus – ‘Stridulum II’

Goth's new figurehead expands her bleakly glossy EP, creating a dark masterpiece in the process

Remember when goths were the most castigated tribe in the school playground? Huddled together in the corner, clad in their dodgy-smelling leather, seeking shelter from the vicious barbs of their more popular peers? They used to have the monopoly on awkward teenage shuffling, but now every trendy kid seemingly has a copy of Twilight on their bookshelf and an iPod crammed full of [a]Bauhaus[/a] rarities. Goth is cool again, and unless you possess a snazzy collection of liquid eyeliners and your skin sizzles in the sunlight, you’re nobody.

She’d probably bristle at the suggestion, but 21-year old Nika Roza Danilova – aka [a]Zola Jesus[/a] – is the poster child of this resurgence. Sure, she may have swapped her raven tresses for platinum blonde locks but, still, her pale visage and jet-black wardrobe is as good as it comes. More importantly, she makes music that revels in the most identifiable tropes of the genre. ‘Stridulum II’ – her first full-length release and an expansion of earlier US EP ‘Stridulum’ – is the gorgeously ethereal soundscape of a thousand years of heartbreak unleashed into one might howl. Take ‘I Can’t Stand’, in which reverb-laden synths plucked from the nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe quiver underneath cacophonous drums, with Danilova mournfully intoning: “It’s not easy to fall in love”. Even her repeated caveat of “It’s going to be alright” sounds like hollow futility rather than confident self-reassurance.

It’s her voice, though, which is the deadliest weapon in her arsenal. Whereas original gothic goddesses such as [a]Lydia Lunch[/a] had vocals so coarse they could strip black nail varnish, Danilova is a classically trained singer. Her lush operatic tones form the crux of ‘Stridulum II’, lending both bleakness to the melancholic ‘Trust Me’ and fragility to the softer, twinkling piano strains of closer ‘Lightsick’. Most remarkable of all is her performance on ‘Night’, a breathtaking gloom-pop masterpiece which starts with a haunting backdrop of sighs and shrieks before giving way to her lovelorn confessional. “I’m on my bed” she moans wistfully, channelling the spirit of every bedroom-inhabiting broken-hearted teen, before belting out: “At the end of the night, I can be with you.”

The rub, perhaps, is that ‘Stridulum II’ does sometimes veer from atmospheric into formulaic. The standard modus operandi of spooky-introduction-builds-to-huge-crescendo feels slightly one-note on the likes of ‘Run Me Out’ and ‘Sea Talk’, and, subsequently, the nagging doubt is that Zola’s monochrome aesthetic is more fully-formed than her creative palette never completely disappears. Still, similar accusations could be levelled at [a]The Horrors[/a] – artists equally skilled with a stick of kohl – and their debut was nowhere near as accomplished as this. To think where she could go from here is, in every sense of the word, truly frightening.