Genreless experimental producer and string quartet enable charming rework of Zola's previous albums
An album of new reworkings from Zola Jesus’ previous two records (2010’s Stridulum II and 2011’s Conatus) plus one original track, Versions was born out of a one-off live event. That night in 2012, Wisconsin-born Nika Roza Danilova teamed up with defiantly genreless experimental composer and producer JG Thirlwell, aka Foetus, and the strings of the Mivos Quartet for a very special gig at the Guggenheim in New York City. The collaboration went so well that the three parties have now released an album together and are planning further live dates.
In these new versions, Zola Jesus’ typical idiosyncratic goth-industrial electro is radically transformed into some equally dramatic string-based arrangements, topped with Danilova’s powerful voice. At times on those earlier albums, it felt like that voice had only one setting – an unvarying Florence-Welch-style bellow that quickly became tedious – but here, without that wall of plugged-in noise, she explores far more nuanced and tender territory, without losing any of the power when it matters.
Opener ‘Avalanche (Slow)’ does what it says on the tin – it’s a slow and stately, almost filmic reworking of the original ‘Avalanche’. It’s a perfect, portentous beginning, full of grandeur and cascading strings, its refrain of ‘and it all falls down’ repeated by Danilova with breathtaking vulnerability. The next track is ‘Fall Back’, the only new track on the album and also a winner, its apparently more uplifting nature belied by some tense staccato strings. Across the nine tracks, Thirlwell makes the very most of the string quartet’s range – his richly layered arrangements adding new dimensions to the songs, and often, seemingly, both violence and elegance at the same time. There’s little to match the first two songs later on, however, and something of a return to the over-zealous vocals of past releases. That said, Danilova’s vocals are well matched to the more orchestral sound, and Versions is well worth investigating, even by those for whom Zola Jesus hasn’t previously hit the mark.