Review by Roisin Corbett
‘Okovi’ is the sixth studio album by Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus. The title of the album, ‘Okovi’, means “shackled” in Slavic, which is not an unsurprising choice for a title, given that the album’s main themes revolve around the ideas of loss and death.
Right off the bat, the album is very texturally interesting. One of Zola Jesus’ hallmarks is her exceptional layering of various sounds, both vocal and instrumental. This album is not an exception, successfully blending industrial electronic beats with a heavy presence of string instruments, combined with Jesus’ often haunting vocals. Thematically, the album does seem well thought out. While many of the tracks have a seemingly depressing subject matter, the album as a whole manages to feel rather uplifting.
Although the album is on the whole a good one, there are definitely some standout tracks. As an opening track ‘Doma’ is excellent, pulling no punches as it launches into an assault on the senses, comprised only of layers of Jesus’ voice. The track itself is very atmospheric, and functions well as an indicator of things to come.
Arguably the best track on the album, ‘Witness’ is a step away from the industrial nature of the majority of tracks on ‘Okovi’, and instead is a deceptively simple sounding blend of almost pretty sounding strings, and unusually undistorted vocals. The track is an elegant one, designed to show off Jesus’ immense vocal prowess, and is also demonstrative of the poetic lyricism which pervades the album. The track feels exceptionally honest, which perhaps adds to its appeal. With lyrics like: ‘One small thread keeps you hostage/To the better side of death/One small chain a ghost in limbo/It’s all for the best’, this track is a clear demonstration of Jesus’ troubled mental state during the album’s recording process, which perhaps makes it easier for the listener to empathise with her, and thus connect with the album on a more meaningful level.
The album’s final track ‘Half Life’ also performs admirably, and is a fitting close to the album. Beginning with slow strings, and becoming increasingly more electronic as the track goes on, it encapsulates everything the album did well – acting almost as a summary of the whole. Similarly, in Doma’, the vocals within the track are distorted and haunting almost to the point of being wordless. This similarity between the opening and closing numbers provides a pleasing symmetry, demonstrating that the album is a piece of art as a whole, and is not just a collection of individual tracks.
However, not every aspect of the album functions so smoothly. ‘Siphon’, arguably the most commercial track on the album seems a little out of place, particularly when following on from the understated brilliance of ‘Witness’. It is a dramatic shift musically, employing instead a heavy electronic beat, and a repetitive, almost catchy chorus. A song such as this feels an odd inclusion on this album, which on the whole seems to be as far from commercial, radio friendly fare as possible. That is not to say that the track is a bad one; it is not. It is just perhaps not the right track for this album.
On the whole, I would rate ‘Okovi’ highly. Both conceptually and musically, it is very accomplished, and although it is not perfect, it is indeed immensely listenable.