As increasingly more people have accepted that climate apocalypse, unaccountable and draconian legislative bodies, ruling class wealth consolidation, endless mass shootings and other nightmares may be less worst-case scenarios and more our present and future reality, increasingly more people have retreated from political engagement into uneasy surrender. It’s hard to feel excited about voting when one major political party’s promises range from empty to just a sanitized version of the literal Nazi party’s economic views; it’s tough to envision a bright future when a never-ending pandemic, a potential World War III and Christian fascist legal victories are part of a year literally pronounced “2020 too.” It’s easy to look into our terrifying future, accept defeat and live in some sort of half-aware, half-okay-half-not trance, doing just enough to make it to the next day.
On Arkhon, the Slavic-American art-pop musician Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, stares into the great unknown and finds resolve. Her sixth album (and first in five years) feels primed for this era: Its blackened gloss and booming drums evoke power amid turbulence, as do her ever-sweeping vocals—which mix operatic primality with pop heft—and her lyrics about continuing onward as everything around you crumbles. On some songs, unexpected tempo shifts—which are new for Danilova—reflect the sudden return of that existential dread you’ve been trying to suppress.
Doom looms overhead throughout Arkhon, but instead of giving into the pressure, Danilova walks through the fires of uncertainty and emerges a more balanced person. Her music finds more grounding in tandem: Her most organic-sounding drums to date give these songs some breathing room as compared to the crushing darkness of 2017’s Okovi. The result is her vastest music yet, a cavernous sort of middle ground among orchestral, Gothic, pop, opera and industrial music that feels apt for barreling through obstacles both global and personal.
Danilova faced unusually severe writer’s block while writing Arkhon, so she brought in Fiona Apple-affiliated percussionist Matt Chamberlain and Sunn O))) collaborator Randall Dunn to help sculpt the LP’s sound. Their contributions imbue these songs with adrenaline, life and horror. The album’s percussion is especially responsible for how sharply the music evokes simultaneous upheaval and strength, though Zola Jesus records have always sported daring percussion. Danilova’s lo-fi noise debut, 2009’s The Spoils, kicked off with a tractor-trailer of an industrial drum machine, and 2010’s “Night” slowed a techno beat into an addictive stomp. Arkhon is distinct in that its percussion clearly comes from actual drums, rather than machines.
Highlight “Sewn” grows into a glorious clusterfuck of drum kits battling it out with what sound like dinosaur-sized triangles (yes, triangles). As Danilova’s manipulated vocals ricochet off all the thwacking, she sounds like she’s belting her way to safety from inside a tornado: She doesn’t need words to convey her fortitude. The percussion elevates her explicit messages of self-empowerment, too: On “Into the Wild,” Chamberlain starts pummeling right as Danilova reaches the most anthemic parts of her register and sings about jumping into the unknown. “Drop in / Till the walls fall / ’Cause every step is yours / Into the wild,” she commands, singing as much to us as to herself. She stands at the ledge, and her musical collaborators help her take the leap.
On “Desire,” the only Arkhon track entirely lacking percussion, Danilova zooms in on her life and still can’t help but sound distraught, her voice quaking with vibrato and intensity that match the song’s heartbreak. Given that the track is surrounded by world-weary songs, the point seems to be that your personal life still matters even if so many people have it so much worse and the end is nigh. “It’s not your fault,” she repeatedly tells herself on “Fault,” reminding herself that there’s only so much she can control while turning in her latest powerhouse vocal performance in a career full of them. During the song’s outro, Chamberlain’s ballistic drums engulf Danilova’s voice until it nearly disappears: Accepting that you can’t control certain terrible things can be as intense as it is liberating.
The freedom that comes with embracing life’s heaviest questions forms Arkhon’s essence. These are songs about freeing yourself of depression-fueled stagnation (“Efemra”), finding your way out of hollowness (“Lost”) and taking a grand leap of faith (“The Fall”). Danilova’s tremendous voice and Chamberlain’s mountainous percussion together make her words believable, so occasionally, when one of the two isn’t at its most potent, you’re reminded that Danilova often leans on overly familiar images. She started to break this habit on Okovi: “We’d love to clean the blood of a living man / We’d hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head,” from that album’s grueling “Siphon,” is about as pointed and unique an anti-suicide plea as they come. On Arkhon’s “Undertow,” Chamberlain’s restraint puts Danilova’s somewhat elementary lyrics in the spotlight: “Take all you know / Into the undertow / If you let it go / It will give you all you want.” Yet the sheer power of Danilova’s voice still tempts you to follow her into the tides.
“Do That Anymore,” Arkhon’s mournful closer, stands out for its obvious allusions to the present-day. When Danilova sings, “We can’t do that anymore,” it’s immediately clear that she’s talking about a “post-COVID” world (not that it really exists), one where every decision we make comes with questions at once inescapable, yet seemingly ignored by the government and society writ large. You can practically hear her asking: Is this formerly worry-free thing somehow safe again? If everyone else is doing something as though there’s no risk, should I, too, throw all caution to the wind? Why are we pretending everything is okay when it’s not? As the song ends, Danilova’s voice warbles up and away from the arrangement: Everything is up in the air, and she follows it there.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes, he just sits. Oh, and sometimes, he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, MTV News, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.
Listen to Zola Jesus’ 2011 Daytrotter session below.