Friday, May 11, 2012

Live: Zola Jesus Ascends at the Guggenheim

Posted By on Fri, May 11, 2012 at 2:10 PM

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Shoulders wrapped with a mesh-and-wire cowl, lit up from within by clean, classy-Christmas colored lights, Nika Danilova glowed bright white. It was a only a slight amplification of her usual aesthetic, the platinum hair and pale skin accentuated by white clothing, that you see on Zola Jesus album covers or backlit on stage. As the budding idol for modern goth-pop, her photo-negative inversion of the original vintage's solid black palette seems natural. In her music, especially last year's excellent Conatus, she more often goes for soaring uplift than dark commiseration. So, making herself a literal beacon at the bottom of the Guggenheim's stately white cone was a becoming choice. That simple prop, sort of understated and outlandish both, demonstrated a strong desire for and understanding of visual drama that was almost Bjork-ian. It's a comparison she's gotten before despite not singing like her, at all, but her flatly astonishing voice, ringing out with great clarity in that historic space, neared that league in terms of raw, instrumental force.

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She was accompanied at this show (the last in the museum's excellent "Divine Ricochet" series) by the Mivos String Quartet, conducted and arranged by J.G. Thirwell, an Australian industrial music pioneer who mainly works under the name Foetus. He cut a gaunt, dapper figure at center stage, his hand making wide, lazy, Pope benediction crosses all night when indicating tempo for the players. The lush string swells glossed over necessarily canned beats and prerecorded synth touches. But there was enough activity and nuance in the strings to keep it feeling alive. Only once, early in the performance, did some sound element flare up, swamping everything in feedback. The effect was sort of interesting, actually, a harsh element that more fully resembled the John Chamberlain sculptures these concerts were meant to be celebrating, than the rest of the set's sculpted pop. But you could see it stress Nika out, just slightly. From the looks of wide-eyed incredulity she gave to the grandiose surroundings whenever she'd look up from intense concentration, you could tell this show registered as a huge personal deal. And it was mostly immaculate. This is big music and if it filled this room, there aren't many it couldn't.

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She played a mix of songs from Conatus and its predecessor Stridulum. Her demeanor projected deep, contemplative focus during most of the songs, sometimes pacing the stage in purposeful circles. After she announced "This is our last song," there was an audible "Awwwwwww" from the crowd, followed by a collective, self-conscious giggle that no one had managed to suppress their pouts. But she came back to do "Avalanche," punctuating it with a leap to the room's iconic railing, carefully pacing up half a flight as the song climbed with her. It was all over in under an hour, single-song encore included, but the audience was rapt during, ravished after. The setting, it's effect on the presentation of the music, will be awfully hard to live up to on subsequent trips through town.

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