Zola Jesus - Spoils - LP Vinyl

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Zola Jesus
12" Vinyl


On their first-full length, Zola Jesus assert the potential of their earlier work, flex a bit more songwriting muscle, and shatter the idea that their style should make them a niche interest or a cult wonder. Their earliest singles, EPs, and CD-Rs were promising, with an immediately identifiable aesthetic and an obvious talent in singer/leader Nika Roza Danilova and her enormous voice. Though there were hints of more melodic directions on her earlier work (see "Nativity" from New Amsterdam), they were pulled in a few different directions, between structure and atmosphere, or vulnerable longing and stark, theatrical wailing. Their influences were impeccable, and the music, in nodding to avant-garde and proto-goth forbearers while using back-in-vogue bargain-basement production, sounded both familiar and fresh.

But The Spoils is much more than an exercise in reverence. No doubt that this record is a little gauzy-sounding, but it's not just making something sound new by making it sound shittier-- this is a potent mix of layered and otherworldly vocals, muddy electronics, and storefront-church keyboards that congeal until it's hard to pick out where one instrument ends and the other begins. When the tension swells, there's no volume that gets turned up or pedal that's kicked; it just suddenly feels more anxious, often terribly so. The muffled industrial beat of "Six Feet (From My Baby)" sounds like someone dragging student desks up the stairs, with watery drones and Danilova's powerful wail. It's familiar ground for the group, until the synths come in at the minute mark with a brief melody, setting up a push-pull dynamic between a familiar swoon and an anchorless anxiety in the verses.

Even as the record veers away from songs and structure toward creepier pieces that concentrate on mood and tone, the music never loses its visceral impact. The backward effects and wordless upper registers Danilova explores on "Sinfonia and the Shrew" are as compelling as they are disorienting, and the piano from the fragile interlude "Lullaby in Tongues" is even pretty, while closing tracks "In Hiding From the Crow" and "Tell It to the Willow" are as unsettling as intended. But when the album's haunted feeling sneaks in an emotion like yearning, it moves from compelling pastiche to a sucker-punch to the gut. The Spoils is compelling throughout, but the peak comes much later in its runtime, with "Smirenye" and especially "Clay Bodies". The distorted keys of the former sound like chimes over Danilova's sweetened vocals and the song's dogged mid-tempo beat, and the simple wedding-march piano of "Clay Bodies" is overwhelmed by clattering percussion-- though none of it ever distracts from the vocals. Nearly anything Danilova sings sounds like a matter of life or death, especially so on these later tracks; the words are almost beside the point.

Yes, some will lose patience for the scrappy bedroom/basement production on display here. But that's no reason to preclude anyone from hearing The Spoils; the intensity of its emotion is real, and given its theatrical roots, it never veers into cartoonish exaggeration or caricature. Danilova exhaustively charts these emotions while creating temples out of stray sonic parts to house them in, creating something distinctive out of sounds often explored and emotions commonly felt.