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Album Review: Zola Jesus - Okovi

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The fifth album from Zola Jesus opens with an ethereal Gregorian chant, dreamy yet ominous as several layers of Zola softly repeat the phrase "take me home". 

For Zola - the stage name of Nika Roza Danilova - home is the woods of Wisconsin, and her return to these roots laid the foundation for Okovi, an eleven track odessey into her grappling with loss, mortality, trauma and the will to survive.
 
It's not easy to revolve an entire album around the concept of death without becoming unbearably morose.
Harder still when your primary sonic influences are steeped in the dark and the gothic. Yet Zola manages to instill an admirable, twisted power into even the bleakest of ideas.
 
On 'Soak' there's a raw defiance in her operatic voice as she assumes the role of the victim of a serial killer - a victim who ultimately makes the decision to go along with the ordeal rather than give her killer the agency.
'Veka' deals with the question of legacy over a slick house concoction: "Who will find you/When all you are, all you are is dust?/Who will find you/For centuries?"
But it's the panicked horror of lead single 'Exhumed' that shows the singer-songwriter at her most potent capabilities. The combination of anxious, stabbing strings and her haunting Amy Lee-esque howls is devastatingly powerful; as much as it deals with pain, it also points to the idea of rebirth. 

Given the placement of 'Exhumed' as the album's second track, it hints that through the darkness will come a light, and indeed hope is something to be found plenty of throughout Okovi.

'Siphon', the most recent single, is one such beacon. Its beat may be glitchy, but its harmonies are soothing, as Zola delivers a message of comfort to someone who has tried to commit suicide: "'Cause we'd rather clean the blood of a living man/We'd rather lean over, hold your warm, warm hand".

Likewise, 'Wiseblood' is adamant in its plea to keep fighting: "If it doesn't make you wiser/Doesn't make you stronger/Doesn't make you live a little bit/What are you doing?" 

A message such as this in the hands of a more chart friendly artist would likely end up as teary X Factor power anthems. Instead, Zola cuts you to the core in the most quietly affecting way.

Penultimate track 'Remains' is therefore the album's most moving effort. It offers no concrete answers about the aforementioned big, uneasy themes; in fact, its lyrics ask a question of their own against a stirring keyboard synth hook: "What remains of us?" You may feel like you've been shattered into a million pieces - loss will do that to you - but that doesn't mean you'll never find those pieces again.

It's in the very title: 'okovi' is the Slavic word for 'shackles'.  And we are as shackled to life as we are to death. 

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