One year ago, as the United States was moving toward a Donald Trump presidency, Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, returned to the woods of Wisconsin where she grew up, built a cabin, and began working on what would become Okovi—her fifth and strongest album thus far. It’s full of
the operatic vocals, pulsating synths and drum machines, and soaring string arrangements that first gained her popularity with 2011’s Conatus.
In the press release for the album, Danilova declares, “This album is a deeply personal snapshot of loss, reconciliation, and a sympathy for the chains that keep us grounded to the unforgiving laws of nature.” As one of the more experimental synth-pop artists, Danilova powerfully uses her voice to soar above—and at times drop into— each track’s instrumentation. On Okovi, her sense of urgency is simply unparalleled. When she sings, “To be a witness/ To those deep deep wounds” over a gorgeous string arrangement on “Witness,” she sounds a call to look within—and then deep beyond.
For most of Okovi, the world outside is one of unpredictability and uncertainty.
The opening single, “Exhumed,” begins with a fast-paced string arrangement that is looped over and over again. Asymmetric drum-machine beats fill the holes in the soundscape until the bass line enters and sends the song off its course. Near the end of the song, Danilova pushes her vocals up so many registers that they feel like they are going to escape the bounds of the song. On
Although it’s not an explicitly political album like Austra’s Future Politics, Okovi mirrors the strife of existing as a minority in the United States in 2017.
the next song “Soak,” Danilova pushes the cinematic feel of her music into the realm of the demented, performing from the perspective of a woman who is facing death at the hands of a serial killer. Unlike the protagonist in Lana Del Rey’s “Serial Killer,” in which she uses sociopathy as a metaphor for love, Danilova’s narrator is a symbol of the powerless who are seeking agency in a moment of great suffering. As loud and aggressive drum clashes and keyboard slams reroute the song, the narrator struggles to tell the story on her terms—trying to regain control every time the song slows down.
Although it’s not an explicitly political album like Austra’s Future Politics, Okovi mirrors the strife of existing as a minority in the United States in 2017. Of course, Danilova is creating from the position of being a white female artist, which makes her choice to name the album Okovi (after the Slavic word for “shackles” or “chains”) a loaded one, given that the word evokes chattel slavery. For Danilova, “okovi” is shorthand for the clash between the darkness and light that has been a theme for her entire discography. This contestation most viscerally plays out on “Veka,” the standout track on the album. Amid blurry keyboard parts and spoken bits, Danilova’s vocals powerfully roar into the song, beckoning, “When the words become you/ When the story builds you in/ Who will find you then?” With an emotionally well-timed drop around the threeminute mark, the song explodes into a brazen synth-pop dance track.
At the end of the record, words go missing entirely as an instrumental of keys, bass, and strings closes out the album. The shackles are left as an open question, as something that can only be addressed through reflection on how one fits into a bigger picture. And as dark as Okovi gets, there always remains a glimmer of hope that we can do something else, including using (our) white privilege to point to the darkness lurking outside. RATING: