Like an artificial heart that hasn’t fully kicked in yet, Zola Jesus has delivered more promise than power since its 2009 debut, The Spoils. All the elements are installed: frictionless synths, pulsing ambience, and ghostly vocals that penetrate the flesh. But Zola Jesus’ frontwoman and architect, singer/multi-instrumentalist Nika Roza Danilova, still strains to seamlessly interface with her own creation. On her latest full-length, Conatus, she’s made another bold step toward fully realizing her cyborg-like, post-goth opera—by leaning more heavily on the cold and mechanical.
Conatus’ third track, “Vessel,” is its de facto statement of intent. With Danilova’s Siouxsie Sioux-like wail poking holes through digitized ice, the song carves hard angles and sharp edges into slabs of glacial ambience. “Skin” is a piano-drenched threnody telegraphed from Atlantis; “Collapse,” with its refrain of “It hurts to let you in,” drones on a melancholy frequency that’s wholly Danilova’s.
The skyward spirals and throaty declamations of “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake,” though, sound a little too much like Florence + The Machine’s evil twin. But when Danilova shines, she blinds: “Avalanche” overcomes her knack for disconnection by hooking her voice to a skeletal melody and some skittering syncopation. Slashed by shards and shadows, Conatus is Zola Jesus’ best album to date. But it also hints that Danilova has a stronger, stranger, more soulful one left in her.