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White Noise: Zola Jesus – Stridulum II

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Zola Jesus – Stridulum II

           (I know this isn't the cover but I like this picture better)

Zola Jesus is trying to do something interesting. In each of the tracks on this, more of an extension than a follow-up to her EP Stridulum, she mixes her chamber-goth instrumentals into a shoegaze-y wash that swells and flows beneath her soaring voice. It's goth for the hipsters, or pop for the goths. Whatever it is, her laudable ambition unfortunately is not quite carried off in this, her first LP.

The set-up is good, and opener Night is a stunner. The throbbing beat propels the dark, unsettling instrumental that builds beneath her vocals. And what vocals. The best thing about this artist by an enormous margin is her voice; it's astoundingly strong and emotive, carrying all the tracks to a certain level by its quality alone. Trust Me is another good cut, in which she doesn't go all out but takes a more subtle approach, the sound flows around her vocals and there is a quiet intimacy to the track not found anywhere else on the album.

As promising as this sounds, this album has some serious problems. Firstly, and from reading other reviews I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this, her vocals are completely cut off from the musical track. Perhaps the intention was to create an effect of her voice flying above the instrumentals, but I found in each track it sounded distant and separate from the music, which is incredibly jarring. However the biggest issue I had with the album is that after opener Night, all of the tracks sound tragically formulaic. Quiet and menacing strings, booming drumbeat, her voice starts quiet and slowly increases in volume in a manner so predictable you could probably chart it on a graph. If you listen to title track Stridulum it has remarkable strength on its own, but having heard the rest of the album I found absolutely nothing new to interest me.

Fortunately, the latter problem only really applies to the first 6 tracks which were those from her EP, and the 3 new tracks added go some way to remedying the issue. Sea Talk is sweeping and magisterial, and it is followed immediately by the fluttering piano of closer Lightsick which is a welcome change. I still find the vocals very detached from the instrumental track, but perhaps this will be sorted out in the mixing for the next release, or maybe it's just a weird problem only I have with the album. Either way, these 3 tracks are unfortunately too little to completely change the overall feel of the album.

As I've said, Zola Jesus has stunning ambition and a great voice. But on hearing the disparate elements that make up her sound, I can't help feeling that all of this could be done better, with more range and subtlety. So I wouldn't really recommend the album, but I'd say she's definitely one to watch, because with her next release she might just live up to all that promise.


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