Missy Mazzoli is a composer and a founding member of the band Victoire. Recent projects include works for the Kronos Quartet and the Detroit Symphony, and operas about the life of Isabelle Eberhardt (Song from the Uproar) and Lot’s wife (SALT). She lives in Brooklyn. You can visit her on Twitter here or visit Victoire here.
The most striking part of Versions, the new album from Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, isn’t the presence of a string quartet or the absence of the dark, unrelenting beats that have become her trademark — it’s her voice, pure and simple. On earlier Zola Jesus albums Danilova strained to make herself heard over a sea of machines, her voice wedged squarely in a narrow band of pitches and decibel levels as she half-yelled, Florence Welch-style, into a vortex of reverb. She seemed to be emoting something inscrutable with great intensity, and while the music was often thrilling, I never felt that she let the audience in on her stories. She was an ethereal, powerful, satin-clad presence that kept us all at arm’s length.
With Versions, Danilova turns down the volume, dials back the reverb, and lets us into her wonderfully mysterious world. She sings in our ear instead of shouting at us as if from the bottom of a well. She uses the full range of her voice, modulating from a near whisper to an impassioned wail with a consistent, endearing vulnerability. While these songs are not new for Danilova — they appear in their original electronic arrangements on earlier Zola Jesus albums and EPs — it feels like refreshing new territory. Songs that in earlier incarnations had a flat, formulaic quality suddenly become multidimensional, and Danilova’s lyrics, while unchanged from previous versions, feel more honest and direct in these new arrangements. Stripped of most of its reverb and effects, Danilova’s voice ceases to be another instrumental layer and instead becomes the messenger of beautifully raw missives like “In the citadel I fall to pieces and it hurts/it hurts to let you in.” I was surprised to realize how touching it was to hear these words sung without the scrim of effects; it was the feeling of someone standing before you and letting their guard down unexpectedly.
This new emotional depth is also due in no small part to J.G. Thirlwell’s powerful new arrangements for strings, here performed by the excellent, New York-based Mivos Quartet. Thirlwell is the perfect arranger for a project that bridges the industrial with the classical. Since breaking into New York’s early ’80s no-wave scene as Foetus, Thirlwell went on to lead challenging, inventive instrumental groups such as Steroid Maximus and Manorexia, among many others. Mivos shows a similar musical voracity; its members have played with members of Blur, Esperanza Spalding, Signal and — full disclosure — my band Victoire. These newly orchestrated tracks, stripped of much of their electronics and industrial beats, and filtered through Thirlwell’s eclectic influences and his many adventures into darkness, become more fluid, freed from the strict conventions of dance music.
Many of the songs on Conatus, Zola Jesus’ forceful, monolithic 2011 album, fall into a functional but predictable formula: a lush intro followed by a dark beat under a repeated chorus, swallowed by a quirky outro. On Versions, the quartet swells from gritty, soft tremolos to heart-on-sleeve melodic lines, giving these songs new, stronger shapes. Supported by the quartet, when Danilova’s voice reaches her “Zola Jesus scream,” it feels earned — we, the audience, have traveled somewhere new and terrifying with her instead of simply sitting next to her on the roller coaster.
Thirlwell’s arrangements work best when the quartet functions as a single instrument, pulsing with lush chords or uniting in a frenzy of driving, repeated motifs. “Night” is a highlight; Thirlwell gives new depth to a song that in its original version (on the 2010 Stridulum EP) falls a little flat. Likewise, Danilova’s lyrics, which in the original felt forced, now feel warmly confessional. On the most successful tracks (“Collapse,” “Avalanche (Slow),” “Night”), the string quartet vibrates with more intensity than the theatrical electronics of the original versions. In “Seekir,” Thirlwell’s arrangement feels perfectly balanced with the electronics and voice, and he boldly brings out bass lines and melodies that, in the original version, had been obscured beneath throbbing dance beats.
Occasionally, the arrangements make these songs a little too precious. The original version of “Run Me Out,” also from Stridulum, was a delightfully out-of-control wash of reverb, with melodies that emerged out of the chaos only to be swallowed again by the sonic morass. The quartet arrangement, with its soaring melodies, feels secure and grid-like, and in this squareness we sacrifice the dark strangeness of the original. Likewise, on “Hikikomori,” the strings feel more like elegant window-dressing on a haunted house than a truly integrated part of the structure. Thirlwell often saves his most daring orchestrations for the final minute of these songs, when, after Danilova finishes singing, he allows the quartet to descend into strange harmonies, icy sul ponticello (the scratchy sound produced when the bow is dragged across the bridge of the instrument) and warped harmonies. One of the most satisfying instrumental moments occurs two-thirds of the way through “In Your Nature,” when the strings free-fall in gritty glissandos. I only wish there were more of this dirty, extreme use of the instruments throughout the songs, to match the dark industrial tone that, even in these stripped-down versions, seems to make up the music’s core.
There must be a point to making a new arrangement of an already successful pop song, beyond novelty, spectacle, or ticket sales. Great arrangers use new instruments to unearth hidden emotional worlds, going deep within each song. When I created new orchestral arrangements for Efterklang’s recent album Piramida, our constant refrain was, “We need to make this something new, something more than the sum of its parts.” This is precisely what Thirlwell has done so expertly on Versions. What’s more, he has done it by using restraint and economy of means, instead of simply piling on instrumental layers for some sort of empty emotional frosting. Danilova more than rises to the occasion, skillfully adjusting her delivery to perfectly match this new context, bravely peeling back her own layers to expose a surprising and arresting inner core.