Some people have taken to calling Zola Jesus – alias Nika Roza Danilova – ‘the goth Lady Gaga’. This is, of course, utter rubbish, but it’s only on Conatus that she’s started to demonstrate exactly why. Last year’s Stridulum II was, instrumentally speaking, thin and underpowered, but Danilova finally has the production to match her powerful, chilly voice. Conatus is heavy, cavernous, and darkly beautiful, taking atmospheric cues from witch house but filling out its clattering percussion and throbbing synthesisers with strings and piano – oh, and That Voice.
The crucial difference between Gaga and Zola is that – unlike the cut-and-paste Madonna pastiches that make up 98% of Ms Germanotta’s back catalogue – Danilova has not only done her homework, but also turned it into origami afterwards. There’s a definite hint of Siouxsie Sioux in the icy splendour of her vocals, and the industrial samples and noise breakdown on ‘Vessel’ are reminiscent of early Nine Inch Nails, but the best tracks on Conatus are those where Zola Jesus keeps her influences at arm’s length.
In fact, the greatest risk Danilova runs is attracting a different tag: ‘goth Florence’. ‘Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake’, with piano chords cutting crisply through the electronic haze, and ‘In Your Nature’ are good enough but stick slightly too closely to the formula set by The Machine. Another problem is the favouring of passion over lyrical intelligibility: there’s a hell of a lot of feeling here, but it’s difficult to tell exactly why.
Still, tracks like the thrilling, slow-burning ‘Collapse’, or the mighty ‘Seekir’ – a proper dance track – prove that Zola Jesus has the ability to do something that’s entirely her own. The fact that this album begins not with a potential hit single but with the deep, pulsing, minute-long instrumental ‘Swords’ suggests that Danilova is willing to reject the easy option. All she needs to do now is resist the temptation to become Florence Welch with thicker eyeliner, because Conatus shows that she can do something far more interesting.