Rising from hands and knees to backmasked vocals and the tolling drone swirl of "Veka," Zola Jesus appeared on the stage, arms outstretched, her face obscured in a dangling mess of hair. As the atmospheric opening song reached its throbbing pulse, the spellbound audience started to move in turn, Zola Jesus's hands twisting and writhing as if orchestrating some bizarre necromantic ritual.
If anyone's suited to raise the dead from a pop pedestal, it's Zola Jesus. Her latest offering, Okovi, is haunted by the lingering spectres of death, exorcising intense personal drama, existential demons and generational trauma with fiery vocal treatments that extend spells of resilience and earnest emotional support. Marking a return to form after Taiga's 2014 bid for the mainstream, the latest album is a reaffirmation that Zola Jesus (Neka Roza Danilova on her passport) hasn't abandoned her roots.
But seeing her tour Okovi offers some widescreen perspective: she also hasn't completely abandoned the groundwork laid on Taiga, seamlessly transitioning into lead single "Dangerous Days" after "Veka" and "Soak," for the set's first divergence from the new material. It was the only time Danilova referenced the 2014 album and its slicker atmospheres all night, retouching it with a pounding four-on-the-floor punch-up better suited for the darker wanderings of Okovi.
That darkness is a recurring feature on Okovi, especially on "Witness" and its booming sequel "Siphon" — two wrenching instalments addressing a friend's flirtation with suicide. "We'd rather clean the blood of a living man," Daniloa insists on "Siphon." "We'd hate to see you give into those cold dark nights inside your head."
Even if it's steeped in industrial textures and otherwise night-cloaked production, Zola Jesus's ability to overtly present such harrowing topics within a pop sphere feels like an accomplishment in itself. As such, hoards of goth fans still find genuine representation in her art-filtered pop music.
Danilova's powerhouse voice should belong to arenas by now, but like some bizarre best kept secret, it's still accessible from the shadowy general admission comfort zones of small halls. She embraces the intimacy with pop star confidence. While early gigs found the singer tethered to her mic stand, she's become a magnetic force of gripping extroversion, dancing and frequently venturing into the pit to connect with the audience. She also occasionally paused between songs to banter about maple trees and her appreciation for the room's acoustics, belting off mic, "It has natural reverb! I lo-o-o-ove it!"
And so it went on, Danilova periodically sprinkling the album material with older cuts from 2011's Conatus ("Hikkomori," "Vessel," and a hushed encore performance of "Skin"), the reverberant Spector-esque beat of "Clay Bodies" from The Spoils and a late set dive into "Night off 2010's Stridulum EP, which saw Danilova usher in the fan-favourite vampire rave with dramatic gestures to the sky.
But the evening reached a more logical crescendo with set closer "Exhumed." Danilova paced the stage feverishly, flailing, possessed in the strobing strings, winding trap snares and chilling backing vocals; buried feelings and fixations were expelled as Danilova used the section of organized catharsis to lose herself in the track's instrumentals, taking the crowd — and, in a decidedly uncalculated moment, the stage scrim — with her.