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all words: William Alberque
all photos: Katherine Gaines

Zola Jesus returned to DC to play a triumphant show in front of a packed Black Cat Mainstage on Friday. It’s hard to review a show as good as this – petite singer Nika Danilova is astoundingly talented, and her backing band (she is adamant in interviews that ZJ is her stage name, not a name of a band) is utterly perfect.  I have tried before, with some degree of success, last time she came through town – at a mobbed Red Palace.

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Tonight, with the inclusion of so many tracks from the new album (and no setlist), I didn’t quite know what to expect.  Fortunately, Conatus (out on Souterrain Transmissions) is more of the (quite excellent) same, slotting in seamlessly with the tracks from the Valusia and Stridulum EPs.

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The opening act, Xanopticon, played a set of sonic brutal noise, like a drum and bass version of a Mogwai instrumental set to “stun.” There were no breaks between “songs” as wave after wave of noise crashed out of the speakers for what felt like a lifetime.  It sounds like all the harshest bits of “Come to Daddy” by Aphex Twin with the volume maxed, looped endlessly.

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While it may seem like an odd choice for an opening act for the Kate Bush-meets-Diamanda Galas-at-an-industrial-night beauty of Zola Jesus, it makes sense if you’ve followed her from the start. ZJ’s first recordings are filled with noisy experimentalism (or, just noise), that have transformed with time into beautiful, soaring song structures, filled with very direct and heart-rending lyrics about love, longing, and loss.

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Danilova has remained a blond since the last time we saw her – she used to have raven black hair – but she’s still a tiny sylph of a woman, measuring less than 60 inches tall and about 90 pounds after standing out in the rain.  She and her touring band – two keyboardists, a programmer, and a drummer – take the stage to a slow instrumental (“Swords” from new release Conatus).

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Her diaphanous outfit reminds me of the lily from the cover of the calla lily on the cover of the Swans “Burning World,” especially as she crouches down into a tight bud, obscuring her face, while digital light patterns are projected onto the stage.  She emerges, barefoot, to the gothy synth strings of “Avalanche,” also from the new album, her voice somewhere between a mythological siren and a police siren, giving us an icy introduction to the set.

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The set continues its heavy emphasis on the new record – which is fine, since the new album is very strong.  “Hikikomori” is a Japanese term for complete social withdrawal, and the song is full of the sadness and despair one would expect from such a subject.  “Stridulum” is next, with its cavernous, echoing vocals, and palpable sense of foreboding.

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Remarkably, there’s something uplifting about the set so far, despite her, well, collapsing back into a little ball for the next song, “Collapse.” Danilova rocks back and forth crouched on the floor during the decidedly torch song before the martial drumming of “Sea Talk” from the Valusia EP raises the mood.  It’s another despairing song and she stalks the stage as she belts out the lyrics – “You tell me not to cry…Do you want to go?  Do you really know that I care?  I can’t afford you” – but achingly romantic and lovely.

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She goes back to Conatus for four songs in a row – “In Your Nature,” “Shivers,” “Seekir,” and the oddly-titled “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” – slowing things down a bit.  I’m unfamiliar enough with the new album that this passage has me playing close attention – the driving energy of “Nature,” the skittering drum machine during “Shivers,” the building climax in “Seekir,” and the surprisingly conventional piano melody in “Lick.”

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But it’s “Night” I’m waiting for – and by the whoops and hollers that greet its unmistakable opening, a lot of others are, too.  At the song’s climax, all the instruments – at that time a goth industrial wall of noise – drop out suddenly, leaving her voice, dramatic and loving, “Yes, and in at the end of the night, when I can be with you.”

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There’s one last foray into the new album, the breathlessly exciting “Ixode,” and the stately lead single from Conatus, “Vessel,” before the encore.  “Run Me Out” from Stridulum proves an excellent closer, with the synth-string keyboard lines and Danilova’s extraordinary soaring vocals reaching higher and higher levels of drama by the end.

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We are left breathless and entirely pleased.  I wait in the hopes Nika will come out to sign records, but, it seems she’s too tired to come out and exchange pleasantries.  I linger as long as I can before heading out into the night to hang out with the Wombats and dance to Joy Division at DC9.  Too bad I didn’t bring anything for them to sign…

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