American singer-songwriter Zola Jesus continues her musical journey with Taiga, her fifth studio album in five years.
It is not hard to see why her sound, influenced by industrial, electronica, classical music and goth, has been compared to that of artists like Joy Division, Kate Bush and Florence Welch. Produced by Zola and co-produced by Dean Hurley, Taiga is an intense studio effort with Zola’s powerful, haunting vocals over occasionally experimental musical backing.
Zola’s haunting, echoing wails and ominous synths conjure a nightmarish atmosphere on the brief opening title track. Unfortunately, its momentum is killed off slightly by the busy beats and brass, which attempt to sound triumphant.
Straight after, the hard-hitting, gentle disco of Dangerous Days exhilarates. It is an obvious lead single, propelled by Zola’s exultant vocals (whose ‘ohs’ allow the track to skyrocket), optimistic tambourine, a deadened but motivating drum beat and a memorable ‘it’s dangerous’ hook.
Dust and Hunger are both growers, as both showcase nervous-drum-machine-assisted, eerie electronica. The former changes tempo and mood abruptly without catching a break. The latter’s laughable brass gives way to subtle verses and discordant choruses where the high-pitched synths clash abrasively against Zola’s melodic delivery.
The unsteady, synth blips, harsh strings and the bombastic brass almost completely overwhelm the strong songwriting of Ego¸ whereas the chorus in Lawless is directionless.
It is at the tail-end of Taiga where Zola’s potential really shines through. Watery synths and bright chimes ring in the moody Long Way Down, which exudes promise and hope in its soaring choruses. The previously gaudy brass actually sounds fitting in the choruses of Hollow, as Zola’s exposed vocals truly stick to the meaning in the song title. Finally, the sparse It’s Not Over rallies with its uplifting, catchy ‘away, nooow’ chorus, its redeeming ‘it’s not over tonight’ post-chorus and percussive ‘it’s not over’ bridge. Again, the brass that proved too much on earlier tracks gives the song an emotional punch to drive it home and close the album.
Zola Jesus’ fifth album has a few quality songs, featuring some effective vocal production to maximise emotional impact including a mix of both single and double-tracked vocals. There are moments where the production could have been wound back a bit, but at least Zola is finding her sound.