Industrial progress is a good analogy for the changes that occur through each consecutive Zola Jesus record. It goes beyond the industrial nature of Nika Danilova’s baroquely claustrophobic pop fugues and instead centers around the increasing clarity. The miasma of stray machine sounds that surrounded the first EP’s and CD-R’s have fallen away in favor of Danilova’s banshee wails as the unobscured main attraction. They had pretty much cleaned up their act for The Spoils, but on Stridulum, everything becomes crystal clear.
Understandably so. Lead-off single “Night” may start off with the screams of tortured souls, but what follows is the kind of pop song made for a debut into the mainstream. It mines the darkest corners of Kate Bush’s territory and puts it all over an IDM backbone. Even the song’s title is chosen for maximum effect: this is your after-dark theme song, whether you’re trying on new Hot Topic swag or soldiering forth into the weirder realms of a Lower East Side loft party.
But even perfect engineering can’t escape its own artifice, or the wasteful byproducts. With the smoke stacks and sewage overflow gone, more attention is paid to the actual processes of industry that occur in factories, processes no less terrible than the pollution it once produced. That is to say, no matter how accessible “Night” or the similarly overwrought “I Can’t Stand” is, Zola Jesus never abandons the sense of alienation that marks its entire output. Danilova’s voice may be captivating, but never in the traditional sense. Instead, she demands your full attention. Even the quieter, more thoughtful “Trust Me” and “Run Me Out” still have an immense amount of energy simmering just below the surface.
The balance between letting loose and sounding slick will clearly take some more time to sort out. There are times when Danilova loses confidence and allows herself to waver, particularly on the beginning of “Stridulum.” And when the spell breaks, it makes the whole endeavor seem rather silly and small ... which makes it all the more remarkable to listen to her marshal all of her forces again for the second half of that song and completely pummel you for doubting. By closer “Manifest Destiny,” it becomes clear that Zola Jesus certainly hasn’t lost anything by trading up in production quality. If anything, it’s more terrible than before.