By Sam Tornow, General Manager
[Sacred Bones; 2017]
Key Tracks: “Exhumed”, “Ash to Bone”, “Wiseblood”
Zola Jesus’ latest release, Okovi, is equally as gigantic as it is fragile; as clear as it is reflective; as dark as it is light; as straightforward as it is abstract. Okovi, when translated from several Slavic languages, means shackles, fitting for an album that was birthed out of a carefully cataloged depression problem and family tragedies.
Contrast is key here. Björk-esque bangers (see: “Soak”) juxtapose the glassier tracks “Ash to Bone” and “Velka”, painting a dramatic picture of past and present. Reminiscing comes first. Manifested through the intro track “Doma,” the weight of the years since her last full-length, Taiga, becomes evident. Muddling reverb drenches the song as vocals wain, only to be swallowed up by silence.
Although, Zola’s prolific recovery from past events becomes evident during the first few soaring lines of “Exhumed”. “In the static, you are reborn // In the white nights, what you ask for.” Layers of vocals weave together in an orchestral fashion to create a grand arena for the artist to outgrow the blinding muck that was visually present on the cover of 2010’s release, Stridulum.
It goes without saying on a Zola Jesus album, but the atmosphere here is astonishing. The sheer size is roughly comparable with works from artists like GAS, Julianna Barwick, and Jan Jelinek, but with the intimacy of Grouper or FKA Twigs.
Ironically, the vastness is the one overt downfall on Okovi. With so much space, the absence of larger instrumentals and dynamic range is jarring. “Exhumed” and “Wiseblood” are the exceptions, and further highlight how empty the project sounds at times.
It’s difficult to imagine someone listening to Okovi and not discerning the expression of freedom. Strong and commanding vocals draped in light, soaring textures make it all too apparent. Zola’s past may be covered in mud, but clearly, she’s wiped away enough away to look onward. For once in her career, it’s almost impossible to predict where Zola Jesus will explore next.