The pressing question at Webster Hall on Saturday night was, “Who and why is this psychotic black metal band opening for little Zola Jesus?”
It might not seem like it, but Brooklyn’s metal upstarts Liturgy and goth/dance crooner Zola Jesus actually do have a lot in common. For one, your parents probably hate them both.
Liturgy is a three-piece black metal band currently comprised of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (guitar), Bernard Gann (guitar) and a chrome Macbook Pro (everything else). Together they produce apocalyptic guitar symphonies that invoke the twisted demons you might expect to see inside the Grinch’s caravan of Halloween horrors. Zola Jesus is the experimental ’80s-tinged industrial dance alias of 22-year-old singer/songwriter Nika Roza Danilova. Standing at 4’11” and draped in white from platinum hair to sheer silk robes, Zola would make a fine master of ceremonies at any Whoville Christmas reception.
Another similarity: Both bands have distinct vocalists. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix howls from a throat tempered in booze and cigarettes, registering somewhere between an asthmatic wildcat’s roar and the shrill scream of wind through dead branches on the coldest, bleakest night of nuclear winter. Zola sings deep from her diaphragm in a smooth and enveloping croon that lays beautifully over synthetic dance beats.
But what both Zola Jesus and Liturgy did exceptionally well on Saturday night was create and maintain an engrossing, otherworldly presence consistent with engrossing, otherworldly music.
Against a backdrop of endless fog and strobing blue spotlights, Liturgy’s two guitarists were shadows in flannel, sent from some unknowable nether to either punish or reward mankind with brutal metal. Hunter clicked play on his Macbook at the beginning of the set and let it roll uninterrupted through a pre-programmed salvo of double kick-drum beats and roof-shuddering bass while he and Gann waged guitar warfare on opposite ends of the fog-drenched stage. Liturgy leaned heavy on tracks from its new album, Aesthethica, and got the most head-banging response from its sucker-punching, seven-minute instrumental “Generation” toward the set’s end. The band barely played for 45 minutes but kept its limited stage time tight, loud and unrelenting. Despite this, many audience members who came out to groove with Zola didn’t know what to make of Liturgy’s hookless battery of treble texture, let alone Hunter’s signature scream, and stood awkwardly with their beers through the proceedings. The phrase “I get what they were going for, but…” trended through the theater while event staff laid fluorescent blue cubes onstage in preparation for Zola’s appearance.
If Liturgy was a vision of darkness, Zola Jesus was an extraterrestrial apparition who looked like she could start hovering Linda Blair-style at any moment. “Swords,” the glitchy overture to Zola’s latest album, Conatus, ushered the four-piece band onstage through fog and a wall of artificial blue starlight, Zola positioned front and center in a flowing white gown. She didn’t stay put for long. Bolstered by synth, drums and electric violinist Christiana Key (whom audience members praised by name more than once throughout the night), Zola beautifully belted out “Avalanche,” “Shivers” and most of the tracks from Conatus while floating, hopping and jazzercising across the smoky stage. After a hot hour Zola was already gone and back for the encore, stationed behind a double-decker Akai keyboard while Key’s violin groaned along to the somber ballad “Skin.” The rest of the band returned for one last number of pummeling drums, shimmering synth and erratic blue-and-purple spotlights that panned cinematically behind Zola’s flailing hair and body. The set was a captivating dance fantasy that ended too soon. When the house music came on at 10:30 p.m. the crowd was just getting started. It turns out Zola Jesus was just an opening act herself for a “Smack My Bitch Up” flash mob across Webster Hall’s beer-slick ballroom floor.