Review: Zola Jesus – Arkhon

Zola Jesus Arkhon

A new spirit of collaboration informs Nika Roza Danilova’s latest Zola Jesus record.

If there’s one thing you don’t want to lose under any circumstances in 2022 it’s total control.

There’s danger everywhere – be it actual, metaphorical or spiritual – so the last thing anybody wants to relinquish on the street or on a phone is the assurance that whatever happens is yours to handle.

Nika Roza Danilova is the singer, songwriter and producer who since 2009 has released music as Zola Jesus, throughout retaining a level of creative oversight which has fulfilled a personal quest for measuring every note and syllable.

For Arkhon though, the focus shifted as, struck by an episode of writer’s block so profound she was unable to listen to music at all, she made the decision to open up the previously closed walls and allow others in at the very start of the process.

As a starting point Danilova sent her demos to Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn, and also began collaborating with drummer Matt Chamberlain whose prior work has involved working with Fiona Apple and David Bowie.

There’s significance to the album’s title as well, as whilst it translates as ‘ruler’ in ancient Greek, it also has tangential meaning within Gnosticism, Arkhons being the Gnostic idea of power wielded through a flawed god.

Understandably, it’s hard to separate the material from its experimental context and foreboding roots: opener Lost weaves samples of a Slovenian folk choir into a tension filled percussive backdrop as the singer attempts to reset mankind’s co-ordinates, a species which has lost its ability to understand the planet around it.

Its successor, The Fall, sounds like a companion, but the path being trodden is one where old scars are being consigned to the wilderness, a deliberate piano melody and stained vocals riding a desolate wave of effects.

As it sounds, this is a record-as-a-scary-place, feelings thrown out into the dark, and its soundtrack is as selectively uncertain as that high concept.

A classically trained singer, Danilova uses her voice as much as part of the tool-set as anything else brought in from outside, turning Dead & Gone – which rejoices in a string arrangement by her touring violist Louise Woodward – into an angelic requiem that teeters on the edge of melodrama, whilst Desire is stark, the simple chorus scorching the pain of an ending both into history and nothingness.

There are antecedents here, such as the gothic ambience of Dead Can Dance, Karin Dreijer and, especially on the closer Do That Anymore, Liz Fraser’s ether bound aural tracery.

But the best moment is largely unrelated to any of those worthy overtones: Undertow, rather than flirt with the omnipresent darkness again, plugs itself instead into the heart of Scandinavian pop, a brief opening of the door to the willing or the curious stuck outside a project with such a forbidding exterior.

Arkhon is about things which carry weight, an attempt to address through music states of heart and mind that are sometimes material to more than just a single life.

For Nika Danilova to get there meant taking Zola Jesus to a place formerly uncharted, one that could only be reached if the co-ordinates were set by many as opposed to just herself.

Full of absolutes, nothing is perfect there. But this is no longer a singular vision, which is nearly all of the point.

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