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Zola Jesus
EMA
Heaven, London
Wednesday November 23 2011

It wasn't so long ago that I saw Zola Jesus' first ever UK gig in a small bar in Brighton (the review is in issue 10 - find it in the archives). But that was then, and this is now. We're no longer in Brighton - and no longer in a small bar, either.

Here we are in Heaven (an entirely appopriate venue for the second coming of Zola Jesus, of course), a 1625 capacity central London club - and it's sold out tonight. On the face of it, that's rather an odd state of affairs, since Zola Jesus doesn't exactly make commercial music. Her stygian atmospherics and thundering rhythms - like every Cocteau Twins record EMAever made playing at once - is exactly the sort of stuff the music biz, obsessed with laddish ordinariness and vanilla-flavoured dance tunes, has been telling us for years could never possibly break big. There are 1625 peoople here tonight who didn't get that memo, obviously.

Also here tonight is EMA - alias Erika M. Anderson, who is a kind of glam-pop version of Zola Jesus. She'll hate me for saying that. But it's a compliment. Her vocals surge mightily in front of a thundering bulldozer of sound, apocalyptic stompo-beats fighting it out with assertive guitars, synth, and (occasionally) electric violin.

EMA herself, as glam as it's possible to be when you're wearing a pair of Y-fronts over your tights, is sparky and engaging and every bit the left-field pop star. Curiously, she sees off 'Milkman', the nearest thing she's had to a hit in the UK so far, as the very first track.

But the song's drone 'n' grind sets us up nicely for the rest of the set. The music swells and churns like a marching army of fairground organs. EMA unleashes her inner rock chyk and trashes a guitar - but in an ironic, post-modern kind of way. If you're going to trash a guitar these days, that's the only way to do it. EMA as post-modern glam-pop? I'll have some of that.

The increase in venue size and punter-numbers are not the only things that've changed between Zola Jesus' first UK tour and this go-around. Then, she was backed in minimalist fashion by two guys on synths. Now, she's brought her full band. There are three synth-controllers on stage tonight, and a fearsome heavy metal drummer, who flails impressively in the shadows at the back of the stage as if playing a championship game of Bash The Rat.

Zola Jesus herself (we should arguably refer to her by her real name, Nika Roza Danilova, but let's standardise on her rock 'n' roll name from here on in) seems far more confident and upbeat than before. Draped in grey, like a druid bride, she looks the audience in the eye and seems entirely at home on this large stage. "You were the first!" she tells us, and it's true that the UK caught on to Zola Jesus before the rest of the world figured her out. But then, this is the country that invented Siouxsie And The Banshees, Throbbing Gristle, and the aforementioned Cocteau Twins. When it comes to anthemic, atmospheric, atramentous assault and battery, we've had practice.

Tonight, however, Zola Jesus brings her own fully-loaded industrio-soul to the party, and instantly makes it her own. She flaps to and fro on stage in her Zola Jesusdruid bride robes, gesticulating in a strange hand-jive, all the while letting rip with a towering vocal. The very air seems to shudder at her onslaught.

The band matches the vocal clamour with monsterous sweeps of electronics, while behind everything that massive metal beat resounds. 'Run Me Out' erupts in bursts of headbanging, while 'Vessel', with its churning, mutant-beatronic rhythm, is the noise Cabaret Voltaire would make if they were produced by Phil Spector.

As if inspired by the rattle and hum of the music, Zola Jesus runs in circles around the stage, unable to keep still amid the band's throbbing bombinations.

'Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake' - now there's a gnomic title - is a soul ballad on steroids, the kind of thing you could imagine Lorraine Ellison doing if she came from 80s Sheffield. Disparate reference points, for sure, which perhaps could only be knitted together by someone from the wilds of Wisconsin, where everything seems equally distant - and equally up for grabs as an influence.

'Night', the big radio hit (BBC 6 Music playlist, no less) is a thing of grandiose bomp and sway, although it's almost eclipsed, now, by the equally mountainous new material.

Zola JesusCarried away to the point where her habitual glacial demeanour drops, Zola Jesus climbs down from the stage, and vanishes into the crowd. Only her voice, that titanic soul holler, marks her presence as it rises out of the audience-scrum.

Yes, Zola Jesus has unequivocally arrived. 1625 people tonight. Watch that total rise.

 

 

Zola Jesus: Website | MySpace | Facebook

EMA: Website | MySpace | Facebook

For more photos from this gig, find Zola Jesus by name here.

Read the interview with Zola Jesus from issue 9 here.

Find a Zola Jesus album review here.

 

 

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