ZOLA JESUS Okovi gets 8.5/10

Zola Jesus
Okovi
Sacred Bones Records

8.5/10

Zola Jesus’ fifth album Okovi is a dark, feminine and brooding listen about death, loss and being lost. As gothic as all that sounds, Okovi is decidedly hopeful and uplifting, like a piece of light filtering through a dark space. It’s abstract and cerebral, a discovery of mind and emotion – there are new things to be found in every listen and at every turn. It’s modern gothic done with an indie and classical twist.

The cover art of Okovi features an image of a girl with a liquid black helmet on, the helmet covers her whole face like a cage or mask – whether the mask is protecting her or holding her back is left up to the interpretation of the viewer. Only her frightened eyes peek out of the mask, making it clear that either way, the album is a homage to the vulnerable.

Okovi is the Bosnian word for chains. It is also an abbreviation for the astro-numerology life path of 9, meaning you entered this life with an abundance of dramatic feelings, coupled with extreme compassion and generosity. These ideas of being held back but wanting to break through, and accepting the dark and the light, are captured in the album – lyrically, conceptually and musically.

Nika Daniolova, the artist behind Zola Jesus, has created a moody and atmospheric album with Okovi and this is largely thanks to her phenomenal range and emotional expression through her vocal delivery, and when this is set against a wasteland of evocative electronica and synth, the juxtaposition between the lightness of her voice and the darkness of the music is hugely affecting.

The electronics, synth and mechanics are produced thoughtfully, with wonderful use of space and cinematic dramatics. The sounds and emotions expand like an ocean, reaching far and wide and with great depth. And then they come rolling in, washing over you, both gently and rampantly, but always in glorious sets of movement and feeling.

The haunting Veka captures the opposing elements of Okovi perfectly – the inhuman with the human – the track instantly transporting the listener to a life-like dystopian world, but one you’ve somehow lived in a thousand times before. It feels both preternatural and familiar.

Stand out track Soak showcases Danilova’s honed industrial electronica chops nicely, featuring scarce echoing beats that build through the chorus, slowly, more rapidly and then aggressively they collide and corrode, as Danilova croons “you should know I will never let you down”, the lyrics adding a personal and intimate touch to an otherwise ethereal track.

Witness and Versions see the addition of some classical influences, both with violin and Danilova’s reverberating and pure voice. Witness is a sorrowful track in which Danilova’ pleads “If you could see from the outside, to be a witness, to those deep, deep wounds. We’ll keep the knife from you. Pull you from the wreckage of your mind”. The song is a beautiful light of hope set in a very bleak place, a beacon for a friend, and for all those who find themselves in darkness.

In Siphon Danilova references battles with mental illness again: “Just call our name and we will be at the door/ Because we’d rather clean the blood of a living man/ We’d hate to see you give in to those cold dark nights inside your head”. The chorus hits with heavy machine drums and synth thumping away, reminiscent of a rampant and anxious heartbeat. The song is a masterclass in song arrangement.

Exhumed sees Danilova really let her vocals run the show, they rain down over a pitter-patter of twitching electronics, fuzzy synth and dissonant guitar. Exhumed encompasses all the elements of Danilova’s career to date, including gothic electronica, electro pop and quirky indie, making it possibly the most multifaceted song on the record and one of the highlights.

A particularly spine-tingling moment in the album is in Siphon when Danilova expels an affirming prayer-like chant, like some kind of watcher. “We won’t let you bleed out” she repeats over and over, and you can’t help but feel you are witness to an exorcism.

Whilst the album has more ballads than Danilova’s previous works, don’t be fooled into thinking it is slow and simple. The ballads are full of texture and carefully crafted musical sceneries that fill the songs and the album like the cosmos.

Danilova seems to have found her groove as the poster girl for gothic indie, and gothic indie sure must be glad to have Danilova. Her messages of resistance and love are important ones, and it’s these narratives, as well as her ability to create both memorable and intricate music, that makes her such an important artist. The fact that she is also capable of creating pulsating techno rhythms and is the owner of an otherworldly voice, all help to keep Zola Jesus unique and ahead of the curve.

LARA FOX

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