Zola Jesus didn't need to clean up to stand apart from the lo-fi horde-- they already had Nika Danilova's voice, which tends to cut through a track and leave an indelible impression no matter how it's recorded. Whether it's wordless yowling, an extended cover of "Somebody to Love", or something as disarming as The Spoils' "Clay Bodies", her singing has a way of sticking in your memory. Even so, the Stridulum EP represents a large stride forward, not just in production quality, but in the band's focus. Heard next to their gauzy beginnings, these six synth-driven tracks sound surprisingly clear, even poppy. Whether this cleaner sound is here to stay or not, the emotions behind the music are just as heavy, and this self-contained EP is the perfect place for the band to try something different. Danilova still belts out the lyrics from behind layers of cavernous reverb and the overall sound remains dramatic and foreboding. And though there are moments here where the foundation rumbles and the sound is disorienting, recording quality has nothing to do with it. Instead, Zola Jesus are more inclined to shake up the atmosphere with dissonance, like the whirring that disrupts the otherwise calming "Trust Me" or the ominous chamber-of-souls hissing at the end of "Night". Still, these hints of abstraction haunt the margins of more direct songs where hooky verses and memorable choruses are the norm. The tracks on Stridulum follow a pattern that opener "Night" nails at the start: They build from minimal but insistent beats and simple melodies into crescendos where the synthesizer tones, sampled incidental noise, and layered vocals merge into a stirring whole. Danilova leans on immediate, familiar phrases here: "At the end of the night, we'll be together again"; "When you're lost, know I'll be around"; "It's not easy to fall in love"; "I can't stand to see you this way". The lyrics are visceral, and swooning chords and always-operatic vocals multiply the effect. Zola Jesus may be experimenting in more earnest and accessible pop here, but the charged theatrical mood is just as overwhelming. Zola Jesus' brooding, gothic vibe probably isn't going anywhere, nor is their willingness to experiment with the sonics and constraints of their songs. But Stridulum's immediately striking cover art hints at the depth of the band's ambition: Their personality is still here, but there's more thought in the composition and the presentation. So rather than cleaning up and getting ready for a close-up, the EP feels more like a lateral move, in the best possible way-- there's no guessing what comes next.
"Recorded on a soft queen in the womb of a Wisconsin winter, 2009"