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MPMF Preview: Zola Jesus

(Saturday, 12:15 AM, Taft Ballroom) 

When Zola Jesus made a pop record, did you really think she was going to change? Did you think she was going to sand the rough edges and hew the knotted underbrush? That there wouldn’t be jarring syncopated beats or jagged bursts of synthesized brass? Because it’s all here. For Taiga, her fifth album overall and first for Mute Records, the Los Angeles-via-woods-of-Wisconsin artist has put forward a pop statement that’s really not that different from what came before. It never aims for the airwaves, although the airwaves might be wise to open up and let her in.

Zola Jesus, born Nika Danilova, was raised in rural north-central Wisconsin, and her first musical proclivities were in the realm of opera (her own choice), and started moving towards more rock-oriented sounds through high school, incorporating elements of the noise music with which she increasingly grew infatuated. Her first Zola Jesus LP was recorded in her student housing at the University of Wisconsin, and was released on the forward-thinking Brooklyn imprint Sacred Bones. Its songs were buried in waves of dissonant noise, her vocals crackling transmissions from another dimension. The records that followed had layovers in synthpop, goth rock, and ambient music, before finally landing on the stunning baroque classical collaboration Versions in 2013. A collaboration with the Mivos Quartet, the album was an aural left turn, but fit right in with the rest of her discography.

All of this led to Danilova retreating to a remote island in Washington State in 2012, where she wrote and recorded Taiga over the course of nine months. Although it is very intentionally a pop record, it still incorporates elements of drone and harsh noise, elements which she says in interviews aren’t as diametrically opposed as some might think. “I listen to as much Top 40 as I listen to noise tapes. Pop music—especially really popular pop music—is as visceral as noise. When a pop song comes on, you feel something.” So far it hasn’t been quite the commercial breakthrough some might have hoped for, but it is an extremely powerful and satisfying record, and the ensuing tour has seen her playing progressively bigger rooms, and the current leg brings her to festival stages at Pygmalion in Illinois and Midpoint right here in Cincinnati.