by Liz Miller
Zola Jesus | Talk Normal The Luminary Center for the Arts February 23, 2012
The power behind Nika Roza Danilova's vicious pipes, mythical, phantom stage presence and empowered, anxiety-tinged songwriting makes Zola Jesus feel like aural noir. An opera-trained songstress, Danilova and her vocal ferocity command attention, bursting with arresting, soulful siren sounds and lonely, haunting lyrics. In October, Zola Jesus released its third full-length record, Conatus, and last evening, brought every ounce of its melancholic supernatural madness to the Luminary Center for the Arts (4900 Reber Place, 314-807-5984).
The night began with tour support Talk Normal, a two-piece noise rock outfit from Brooklyn comprising drummer Andrya Ambro and guitarist Sarah Register. The duos ambient, meandering sound had flashes of 2000-era Pretty Girls Make Graves and had the crowd -- which swelled in numbers until the venue was packed from stage to bar -- suitably entranced with its tribal waves and unstructured sound, howling like desert coyotes or banshees on the moors. The band's primal din prepared well for what came next.
Though it's been less than a year since Zola Jesus' first stop in St. Louis, the release of Conatus made the show a thing to anticipate. It mirrored the album's trajectory, with first cut, "Swords," playing before Danilova took the stage. As the diminutive Danilova loomed over the microphone, the one-minute intro crawled out of the ether and exploded into the album's brilliant second track "Avalanche." With the vengeance of a fallen angel, Danilova delivered spine-chilling notes, writhing on her knees, shaking and rattling darkness and struggle from her lungs and offering it to the crowd.
Zola Jesus played every track from Conatus and peppered the setlist with songs from earlier works Valusia and Stridulum -- including the latter's titular song, which opened with raw, deafening violin music. Danilova strode across the stage like a gypsy; wandering around, with and without focus or aim, though her every move feels intentional, natural. The audience reveled in the dark delight of every song, and lost it when, five songs in, Danilova, churning and quaking, leapt into "In Your Nature," no doubt a partial reaction to the song's recent celebrity remix a la Mr. David Lynch.
Shrouded in a cape-like dress and leggings, it isn't just Danilova's enigmatic vocals that create a ghostly spirit persona. Dance spasms and gut-wrenching floor gymnastics meant she never stopped moving, but she also never directly engaged with an audience member and spoke little -- mostly to thank St. Louis fans for the support.
Zola Jesus played for more than 45 minutes, and before exiting the stage, Danilova commandeered the drummer's sticks for a flurry of final ferocity. As the band disappeared into the wings, a storm of applauses and praise roared from the crowd. Naturally, Zola Jesus reappeared to return the favor. The encore rounded out Conatus and ended with Danilova on keyboard, playing "Poor Animal" from Valusia, with the final lines "I am not your savior/Save me please/We are delusional/Poor animal." Almost immediately after the hour-long set ended, as if a spell had been cast and then broken, the crowd filtered from the venue and into the night. There was nothing else to say or do; Zola Jesus came, saw and conquered.
Notes and setlist are on the next page.
Setlist Avalanche Hikikomori Stridulum (Stridulum, 2010) Collapse Sea Talk (Valusia, 2010) In Your Nature Shivers Seekir Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake Night (Stridulum, 2010) Ixode Vessel Skin Poor Animal (Valusia, 2010)
Critic's Notebook Personal Bias: My grrl crush on Nika Roza Danilova was just thrown into hyperdrive. Random Detail: Though "diminutive" seems too easy and overused a word to describe Danilova's petite frame, it's accurate: She is slender and short, all spirit and song. Overheard: "Does white wine (presumably not spelled "whine") go bad?" and "They look like American Apparel models!" Number of Plaid Shirts Spotted: 70 percent of the crowd, with almost equal numbers of male and female offenders.