Zola Jesus | Arkhon | Sacred Bones Records
Review by B.C. Kowalski
I arrived home last week to find a weirdly-shaped package wedged into my mailbox. Confused for a second, my eyes widened when I realized what it was: Zola Jesus’s latest album.
In case you’re wondering who exactly that is, Zola Jesus is probably the most famous active musician from Wausau right now. (She lives somewhere between Merrill and Wausau, in a house she built in the woods near her parent’s house.)
Her real name is Nika Danilova, and she attended Wausau West before embarking on a music career that took her around the world, only to return a few years later to the area. In a 2020 interview she told City Pages she connects with the people here more than the superficiality of L.A.
Under the name Zola Jesus, she has toured the world, is regularly written about in music publications such as Stereogum and Pitchfork, and plays festivals and small arenas.
I first became aware of her myself late in the game, in 2020. A friend mentioned her to me, asked if I’d heard of her, and suggested I do a story. I threw her music onto my Spotify app as soon as I got home and was blown away.
It’s a bit hard to explain her music — in my interview with her in 2020 she described it as experimental and unapproachable. I can see what she means — but there’s a core sincere musically amongst the dark, swirling synth tones. There are some melodic elements of pop, and of her classical opera training (her voice is deep and powerful). Goth synth pop is perhaps the label I would use if I had to try and label it.
When I bought Okovi on vinyl, it really knocked my socks off — music often sounds better on vinyl but her 2017 album jumped off the disc in a way I hadn’t experienced before. In a later interview (you can find it as episode 50 of the Keep it Wausome podcast), I asked her about it, and she said her record label, Sacred Bones, specializes in vinyl.
So all that is to say I was excited to take Zola Jesus’ new album, Arkhon, out of my mailbox.
Much like the first time I listened to Okovi, Arkhon similarly hit my like a brick to the face. The lead track, Lost, had already been released and its pulsing breath track underneath the melody stuck in my head for days. The melodies of Undertow, the third track, really shine on the first side.
In our 2021 interview, Danilova talked to me about being more collaborative this time around — including adding a producer. Besides writing and singing, Danilova is also skilled at the beat-making and synth side of the equation, but this time she worked with a producer, Sunn O)))’s Randall Dunn, to create the new album’s sound. Dunn also played synths on the album, according to Stereogum’s short review anyway.
If I had one thing to say about the album, it’s that the second side of the album (thinking in vinyl terms) seems to slow down a bit and lose steam. It’s still enjoyable but doesn’t quite pack the same punch as side A.
In the first few minutes, I wondered if Arkhon would be a contender to Okovi for Zola Jesus’ best album yet. If it were based on the first side, I would be happy to say yes, indeed. The music packs such a punch it’s hard not to like it.
But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from buying the album. It’s a solid entry into the Zola Jesus canon and easily one of her best. Pitchfork be damned.
Check out Zola Jesus’s latest, plus merchandise, on her website.