Nicole Hummel aka Zola Jesus, is one of the most enticing singer/songwriters of the current scene. By incorporating elements of electronica and industrial alongside a darkwave tone and with classical leanings, she has released a series of great records highlighting her intricate sound. From the extreme days of her debut, The Spoils, in 2009, Zola Jesus has been projecting an extravagant and adventurous sound. The only misstep I detect in her discography has to be her previous album Taiga, released in 2014, where Zola Jesus embraced further the electronic element and left behind the exploratory and experimental attitude. However, her new album, Okovi, arrives to remedy this. Returning to the record label that put out most of her records, Sacred Bones, has also signaled a return to the darker, atmospheric element.
In a sense, Okovi acts as the opposite of Taiga. The light tone appears to have vanished, and in its place a ritualistic element has arisen. By surrounding herself with very capable individuals, familiar faces in the case of live bandmate Alex DeGroot, excellent musicians in cellist/noise fanatic Shannon Kennedy of Pedestrian Deposit and percussionist Ted Bynes, and also imaginative producers in WIFE aka John Kelly (previously of Altar of Plagues,) the textural depth has significantly increased in Okovi, resulting in a richer offering filled with diverse sceneries, powerful beats and mournful melodies.
On one hand the record establishes a very strong ambient presence, from the very start of “Doma” and the chants that set the tone brilliantly. It is a record that travels through atmosphere in a solitary fashion, feeling like a meditative trip through the darkness. The journey features many different moods, such as the mysterious tonality of “Ash to Bone” acting as an interlude between tracks, or the creepy “Veka” which projects a dark and twisted form, before the vocals appear alongside subtle melodies to reach a point of serenity.
But apart from the ambiance, Zola Jesus has been known for being able to craft some very serious hooks for her tracks, and the case with Okovi is no different. “Soak” carries down the dreamlike path but its delivery is direct and honest, making it hard to escape. The classical instrumentation proves very useful towards that end, appearing in the start of “Witness,” which results in an absolutely heartbreaking ballad of a track, while the chorus delivery of “Wiseblood” similarly presents such an intoxicating moment.
The electronic elements of Taiga, even though mostly left behind, still make an appearance in “Remains,” but the way in which these are structured suggests the degree Zola Jesus has moved away from that phase. While upbeat, the style appears more old-school and retro building a contradiction with the progression and tempo, presenting a much dimmer offering. Even though Zola Jesus does not travel as far as to The Spoils era, with the heavy injections of noise, that is one of her more primal moments of the album.
The highlight of this work however has to be “Exhumed,” which was the first single she also released from the album. The track is simply epic, with the heavy industrial background appearing brutal and energetic, relentless and unyielding but at the same time atmospheric and sorrowful. It is the perfect opening to the record, with the goth-like vocal delivery and ethereal take contrasting the heavy drums and orchestral arrangements, to create a rare combination of elements.
Okovi is a statement from Zola Jesus. Having gone through a fair amount of hardship between Taiga and her new album, she aims to address her experiences through this record. The word Okovi is of Slavic origin and means shackles. The artist believes that we are all trapped in a variety of different shackles, regarding our perception, surroundings, relationships and origins. Through Okovi Hummel attempts to break free of her chains, resulting in a cathartic effort, a painful process of purification. Luckily for us that experience has resulting in a record that mirrors the majesty of completing such a task.
8.5 / 10
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