Conatus is another example of Nika Roza Danilova aka Zola Jesus doing what she does best. She’s able to weave dark, seemingly tangible labyrinth-like spaces through haunting vocals and eerie atmospheric instrumentals, her voice the sole guiding light in an inky, enveloping world. While she plays to her moody strengths, this album doesn’t stray far from her similarly moody past material, particularly last year’s full-length, Stridulum II. The only discernible change is a more realized pop element injected into certain songs.
That being said, the first three tracks really highlight the darkness that Jesus has proven herself so adept at creating. “Swords,” a brief electro intro, features resonating vocals that are indistinct but have definite presence, like shapes moving underwater. “Avalanche” is slow moving, heavy-hitting and mournful, not unlike a funeral dirge. Teeming with familiar sounds, this track was unsurprisingly reconfigured from an old demo. Third up, “Vessel” really utilizes the synth as a driving force. Granular crawling electronic touches make this number unsettling, verging on spooky.
Subsequent pop number “Hikikomori” is where we start to see some progression on Jesus’ part. Her throaty voice packs emotion and adds depth to dreamlike synth pop. This track is a prime example of how she’s further honed the craft of subterranean pop since her last release—the gloomy mold has been stretched to include more hook and melody. Intense layering paired with this newfound warmth makes Jesus’ weighty songs more accessible.
Another standout, “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake,” similarly emphasizes how pop is a stronger, more present ingredient in Conatus than ever before. This number is booming and bold, not to mention oddly catchy. The track tapers off with rich vocals that are slowly stripped of instrumental backing.
Towards the end of the album, tracks tend to blend into each other. Jesus definitely continues to push what she’s good at, but this doesn’t make for much variety. Certain elements are used repeatedly—echoing vocals, gothic synth, electronic accents. It’s easy to find yourself ahead of where you thought in Conatus. While this may very well be just a part of Zola Jesus’ disorienting magic, it seems that her brand of darkness is best complemented by a little light.
Zola Jesus plays the Knitting Factory on Tuesday, October 18 and Le Poisson Rouge on Wednesday, October 19 as part of CMJ Music Marathon 2011.