Autobiographical Order No. 405: Zola Jesus – Stridulum

There’s not really a difference between buying records as someone who likes listening to a lot of records and buying records as someone who intends to play them at DJ gigs. There is, I suppose, if you’re willing to spend money on records you don’t like for the sole purpose of pleasing the crowd. (Which I mostly didn’t do, though there might be an exception or two.) But then again vinyl DJing isn’t so much about giving the people what they want all the time—having to lug all those records around will definitely make you rethink how much you’re willing to carry to a gig. (Sorry everybody who asked for And1 or whatever.)

But in my endless record binge of 2015 (it’s still going and it’s not even 2015 anymore!) I picked up as much contemporary dark music as I could, the more beat-friendly and danceable the better, simply because I didn’t really like the idea of playing the same standards over and over again every week. But I also kind of figured that most good goths kept up with newer bands anyway. And in the past decade, there have been tons of great new darkwave and post-punk acts out there, from Cold Cave to Chelsea Wolfe. And the first record that brought that to my attention was Zola Jesus’ Stridulum.

It’s a fairly brief EP, only six songs and less than 20 minutes long, but it’s huge in sound, with massive gothic synthesizers and Zola Jesus’ own voice, which positively booms. And that’s pretty impressive since she’s tiny. You almost don’t expect it, but then again Abraham Lincoln was a tall dude and supposedly had a nasal, reedy voice, so it never works out how you think it does.

Stridulum contains a number of great songs, like the single “Night,” which didn’t become an underground hit as far as I know but certainly warrants it. But my favorite is the title track, an epic and anthemic piece of towering darkwave that I’ve put on my ongoing list of songs I’d love to cover someday. I remember seeing the artwork long before I ever listened to it and thinking it must have been some scuzzy garage punk band or a noise artist—I mean, what else comes to mind when you see someone’s face being slimed with syrup? Of course that was wrong, but still, what a weird and compelling cover photo.

She’s also an excellent live performer. The first time I saw her live was at a SXSW party put on by Sacred Bones and Stereogum—the same one where I saw Cult of Youth—and Zola was headlining. It was super late, everyone was exhausted, and there were sound problems throughout the evening. In fact, the second-to-last band Trust (now Tr/st), put on one of the most disastrous performances I’ve ever seen. I understand the frustrations with bad sound, I really do. But I also think if you’re at this stage of your career, playing in front of this many people, just before a pretty high profile headliner, you should find a way to get through the set without stopping every song after the first verse and yelling at the sound guy. To be honest, it soured me on ever getting into their music.

Meanwhile, Zola briefly acknowledged the sound issues and then just got on with it, performing a great set that found her breaking the fourth wall, crawling on top of pretty much everything and spending as little time just standing on stage as possible. She’s not the only Sacred Bones artist I’ve seen do that, but it was a pretty damn fun way to end a night in Austin. I’m tempted to say that she saved the evening, though that seems pretty dramatic. She definitely brought it back up after it started going south, though.

I can’t really remember if anybody was into “Night” or “Stridulum” when I played them at St. Vitus Dance Party. I also kind of don’t care. Sometimes you have to play something for yourself, you know?

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

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