Zola Jesus Unleashes Dark and Tortured Album ‘Okovi’

Zola Jesus has returned with her latest album, one that unabashedly sits within the shadows of depression, anger and death. “Taiga,” her more light, pop-oriented album from 2014 saw a new, aspirational direction for the Wisconsin-bred artist known off-stage as Nika Roza Danilova. This more conventional turn was short-lived however, as “Okovi,” her fifth album, released Sept. 8, is as dark she’s ever been. With album artwork showing the singer smeared with black paint, leaving only enough room for her eyes to peak through the darkness, “Okovi” finds Danilova sinking into the deep, albeit in the most remarkable way possible.

Okovi means “shackles” in Slavic – a clear message once you begin to sink your teeth into the meat of the album. The “Exhumed” video portrays Danilova in a Blair Witch scene in the woods through grainy footage littered with flash imagery and strobes. It’s spooky, but very, very cool (Marilyn Manson would be proud). The song itself is breathtaking, kicking off with a flurry of orchestral strings as she drags the listener into the abyss: “Bury the tongue between the teeth/Open the jaw and sink in deep/Force it open and claw the grip/Down throat you let it slip, slip, slip, slip, slip.” This is Danilova’s battle-cry, her unleashed anger and aggression, all out in the open on the first single. “Doma” leads into “Exhumed” as the actual first track on the album. Again, very darkly orchestral, as if a red and black robed choir had taken over the church. This all makes sense once you hear what has been plaguing the twenty-eight-year-old over the past couple years; a cancer diagnosis and attempted suicide from those she loves, and the subsequent depression that followed. On the ambient “Siphon” she explains in gravely poetic detail, “You write a note, we write a eulogy/You drain it out, we clean it up for free,” ahead of the plea, “’Cause we’d rather clean the blood of a living man.”

The production of “Okovi” is elementally spectacular. “Veka” is reminiscent of highly experimental artists likes Arca, sonically at least. The industrial-ness of the electronics are awe-inspiring, adding her own touch of reversed lyrical nuances. The drum-heavy “Remains” is a powerful look into legacy, while the nearly voiceless closing track “Half Life” brings Danilova’s opera upbringing to light as if to end the album on a classically uplifting note.

The only criticism that could be levied against her is her insistence to stay within her preferred vocal octave. Understandable, of course, but there are certain moments where… you know how sometimes incessant, unchanging noises can become overwhelming? It’s sort of like that throughout much of the album. During the verses on “Wiseblood,” she opts for a lower register which feels relaxed and comforting, but then abruptly shoots back to her comfort zone, that familiar, monotone range. For the most part this works spectacularly well for Danilova. She’s similar to Florence Welch, who, while having a spectacular voice, borders on perfectly-pitched screaming at certain points.

After “Taiga,” she hoped to break through the upper echelons of mainstream pop music with her follow-up. What happened instead, was an expertly crafted electronic-pop album in “Okovi” that is more than numbers can qualify. It’s as if in the back of her mind, she never really wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as Lana Del Rey or Banks, but instead to carve out her own chart. While those singers are stellar in their own rights, Zola Jesus’ craft may just be too fringe… but that’s a good thing.

Okovi” is available Sept. 8 on Apple Music.