Zola Jesus Venue, Vancouver BC, January 10
Weird minimal synth drones, drum programming and arpeggiated sequences set the mood as the crowd filled the dimly lit venue, shards of crystal glacier jutting from the stage. Zola Jesus, the goth-tinged art-pop project of Nika Roza Danilova, was accompanied live by three gentlemen on keys, trombone, and a hybrid drum kit. As incense burned behind Danilova, the ethereal intro to the title track from her 2014 album Taiga built up, her ambient vocals fostering the theatricality of it all, and when the drummer finally unleashed at the track's crescendo, she began flailing ecstatically, dropping to the floor in a crouch when he stopped, as she engaged in some interpretive dancing like no one was watching.
Switching gears for the next track, Danilova worked the whole stage for "Dangerous Days," locking eyes with much of the front row (something she would take a step further in "Hollow," when she wandered off into the crowd to belt out a verse). She could be an introvert one track and an extrovert the next, but it never felt put on, despite their obvious rehearsing.
Throughout the show, Danilova showed how solid of a voice she had. Though it wasn't quite diva strength, Danilova sold it with conviction in her delivery and presentation. She fits perfectly in the modern pop landscape alongside Lorde, Sia, Grimes and Florence.
Zola Jesus would perform Taiga in its entirety and in sequence, except for a mid-set catalog foray of "Sea Talk" from their 2010 sophomore album Stridulum II and the pre-encore swapping of "It's Not Over" for "Night" from the Stridulum EP. Most of the performance was between Danilova and the drummer, but everyone was in character, the whole band dressed in black from their shoulders to their shoes. The climax of "Dust" had ever so much more bombast than on record, exploding as Danilova threw her head back and forth with that possessed look in her eyes, soaking in the drama of the moment, while their version of "Ego" burned slower, employing more percussive propulsion. To see the glacier pieces flickering in reds and blues for "Hunger" as the standing drummer reamed on his sideways kick with a soft mallet, while Danilova channeled the sound, was stunning to behold.
A key moment came between "Lawless" and "Nail." For "Lawless," Danilova put the mic stand aside to preach, hunching over and throwing her arms out, serving pop diva fierceness, but in the lull between songs, someone yelled out, "Let's get weird!" Danilova said we were already there, then started singing the intro to "Nail" without a mic, continuing the raw, passionate delivery that eclipsed the emotionality of the double-tracked vocals on the album version.
Performing "Skin" from 2011's Conatus with the focus on her voice, piano and a little cymbal roll while bathed in a soft purple backlight, the scene was set for a breathtaking encore, but some knob in the front dampened the mood by taking several obnoxious flash photos. Nothing could spoil their closing rendition of "Vessel," though, a Trent Reznor-esque industrial pop dirge that compelled Danilova to thrash wildly its peak. The impact was evident as a great number of people stood around clapping for a second encore long after the lights came back on, but this early show had a curfew. She left us wanting more, no doubt.