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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 [i]Twilight[/i] 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 [b]Nika Roza Danilova[/b] – 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. [b]’Stridulum II'[/b] – her first full-length release and an expansion of earlier US EP [b]’Stridulum'[/b] – is the gorgeously ethereal soundscape of a thousand years of heartbreak unleashed into one might howl. Take [b]’I Can’t Stand'[/b], 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 [b]’Stridulum II'[/b], lending both bleakness to the melancholic [b]’Trust Me'[/b] and fragility to the softer, twinkling piano strains of closer [b]’Lightsick'[/b]. Most remarkable of all is her performance on [b]’Night'[/b], 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 [b]’Stridulum II'[/b] 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 [b]’Run Me Out'[/b] and [b]’Sea Talk'[/b], 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.

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