Zola Jesus, LA Vampires, Xanopticon
October 31, 2011
Better than… Seeing MC 900 Ft. Jesus on Columbus Day.
Gotta admit, perhaps the greatest evidence of Nika Danilova's lording over goth-indie minions is that all jokes about a Halloween performance feel just too easy. Full of grand gestures, costumery, cathedral-filling reverb and nonsensical but portentous album titles, the music she performs as Zola Jesus often feels laser-guided to the highest percentile of folks likely to rock a cape in the middle of April, let alone as part of some meticulously planned outfit to get laid on the one night where that shit might fly.
Nonetheless, the Echoplex slowly swelled to near capacity with young Eastsiders looking for something a little freakier and sexier, but still somewhat safe from their Halloween, and they couldn't find themselves in a more fitting setting than what amounted to a homecoming show — Danilova joked, “some of you might be my neighbors,” a nod to her recently decamping the more forbidding environs of Madison, Wisconsin.
She was preceded by Xanopticon and LA Vampires, neighbors in both the geographic and musical sense, the latter of which split a harsh but intriguing EP with Zola Jesus in 2010. Featuring Amanda Brown, former bandmate of Bethany Cosentino in Pocahaunted, LA Vampires deserve some sort of commendation for overcoming a heavy “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” vibe and an almost too trendy set-up — lots of loops, lo-fi dance keyboards, a singer rendered completely unintelligible vis a vis a heavily reverbed vocalist — to generate a kinetic and very hypnotic take on house music that fits rights into the Not Not Fun aesthetic.
The best track happened to feature Danilova. Soon thereafter, Danilova emerged after the swirling intro of “Swords” in angelic white contrasting with the pro forma leather jackets of her rock dude backing band.
During the band's 50-minute performance, they leaned heavily on her latest record Conatus, which I describe in the most loving way possible as what might've happened had Tori Amos mostly forgotten how to speak English sometime around the making of To Venus And Back. But as compelling of a figure as Danilova strikes, Zola Jesus' live performance is something of an extension of Conatus in that they're still sorting out how to translate to a bigger stage both literally and figuratively.
While there was no shortage of deeply, deeply locked-in fans singing along, it's clear that even Conatus highlights like “Avalanche” and “Seekir” get by more on sweeping ambience than hooks; while Danilova's voice is a booming, commanding thing, it can occasionally feel compensatory. Likewise, they're in need of a bigger stage in terms of sheer size. These songs move in wide swaths, the type that require Nika to glide across the stage in dramatic slow motion, yet the band appeared kinda cramped even if everyone besides Danilova was standing perfectly still. Or at least they could've used a more powerful fog machine, preferably stowed within a mechanical dragon — though her vocals are remarkably forceful, Danilova's perpetually frozen visage of wild-eyed terror could probably pull that off without getting too Stonehenge with it.
Nonetheless, as their set wound down, the band proved that all of the sonic atmosphere was in the service of judiciously placed big moments. Her signature track, “Night,” proves to be as tremendously anthemic as a straight-up rock song as it is in Stridulum's more cavernous production. “Ixode” updates the gorgeous gobbledygook of the Cocteau Twins with overtones of rave and noise-rock, and while “Vessel” nods a bit too obviously to Massive Attack's “Teardrop,” well … it makes me think Nika may have spent as much time during her grad school experience watching House as I did. Hey, I can't understand most of the lyrics, so I gotta make whatever connection I can, y'know?
The crowd: Just in case you couldn't tell these very attractive and mildly anti-social types would rather be anywhere besides the HARD Haunted Mansion, they were very fond of saying, “Ugh, is this Skrillex?” to every single track of cartoonishly blown-out bass music that served as the filler between LA Vampires and Zola Jesus. It probably was Skrillex, though.
Personal bias: Really, at some point, one of these witch house acts is going to “accidentally” rip off “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” on some “My Sweet Lord” tip.
Random Notebook dump: One thing becomes abundantly clear watching Zola Jesus in action. She can totally dunk a basketball if she put her mind to it. (Jokes, she can't be taller than 4'10″.)