Zola Jesus

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Arkhon Review

by Heather Phares

Having the strength to accept help is one of the major themes in Zola Jesus' music, and one that was fundamental to the making of Arkhon. While working on the songs for her follow-up to 2017's brilliant Okovi, Nika Roza Danilova experienced such a severe case of writer's block that she had to reach out to other creative talents. She enlisted expert sound-shaper Randall Dunn and percussionist/drummer Matt Chamberlain, both of whom helped her find new perspectives while confronting the emotions within her music with as much bravery and empathy as ever. Arkhon means ruler in Greek, and there is certainly a lot of might in its songs: "Lost" quickly builds to mammoth proportions, adding layer upon layer of serpentine percussion and choral incantations to its admission of feeling rudderless. In Gnosticism, Arkhon refers to the concept of "flawed gods" -- corrupt leaders who gain their power by keeping people in darkness and suffering. Channeling that kind of pain is exactly what Danilova's music was made for, and Arkhon delivers some quintessentially Zola Jesus moments. With its droning synths and intimate vocals, "Fault" is a fine example of the comforting darkness and shared loneliness at which she excels, while "Undertow" reaffirms that her place in the pantheon alongside Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux is well deserved. However, Arkhon is also a significant departure from the path Danilova forged on her prior albums. With Dunn's and Chamberlain's help, she moves away from the dance-pop leanings of Okovi and Taiga, crafting slowly shifting songs that heighten the spectacle of her music and demand to be savored. "The Fall" is one such track, containing so much drama in its writhing synths and muscular rhythm section that it feels more like an experience than a mere song. Boasting a taut string arrangement by Louise Woodward, "Dead and Gone" is a chorus-free meditation on change and loss that remains riveting thanks to its potent uneasiness and how it matches the impact of Danilova's voice without electronics or distortion. When Zola Jesus does turn up the volume on Arkhon, the results are stunning. Written entirely in collaboration with Chamberlain and Dunn, "Sewn"'s gritty beat and seismic drones give the impression of casting out demons; on "Efemra," wild polyrhythms propel Danilova's vocals to ecstatic peaks. As part of rewriting her musical rulebook, she set herself free from the more stringent parts of her vocal training, and the liberation in her singing even on quieter songs like "Desire" feels absolutely vital. Though Danilova closes the album with the exultant "Do That Anymore," in its own way Arkhon is more challenging than her music has been in some time. Some of the changes she introduces don't seem necessary until they're heard, but they're all in service to her commitment to using sound in powerfully empathetic ways.

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