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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Zola Jesus graces Herrick

By Max Calenberg

Decorating Herrick Chapel in darkness, interrupted only by three dawn blue cubes arranged in a triangle, Zola Jesus made a little part of Grinnell in her image before she even exited the green room. “Let there not be light! … Well, just a little blue light.”

Attendees appeared somewhat uncomfortable in their unfamiliarly dark space, opting to sit in pews while they waited for the show to start—if in Gardner, a standing crowd would likely form in the front of the stage before the opener.  Several times, shushing efforts from only a few people were able to silence the entire crowd. This was, after all, temporarily the house of a Wisconsin-born, 22-year-old woman who crafted her name to be intentionally controversial, after a writer from France and a Something from Nazareth: show some respect.

By the time Jesus took the stage, she had been preceded by an opener, a solid break and intro music that built the tension for her entrance.  On recent records, Zola Jesus, born Nika Roza, removes the suppressing lo-fi quality of her early electronic sounds, creating vast eerie soundscapes like an industrial winter forest, probably somewhere in Sweden. Though American-born, Roza finds herself fitting in quite well with recent Scandinavian acts like Lykke Li, The Knife and Fever Ray. She uses her voice as an instrument as much a communication device, often obscuring her words in favor of powerful, throaty vocals. Thanks to the strength of her voice, she easily conveys emotion even if the listener can’t quite decipher every word.

In studio releases, the music can feel claustrophobic and anxious, as if churning and churning to no resolve. When the band started their first song, Roza’s vocals were buried far too deep below drums plagued with too much reverberation.

Fortunately, the mix was adjusted and sounds coming from the four dark figures on stage, Roza, a violinist, drummer, and keyboardist, were much richer and more balanced as the drums confined their kicks to the perfect resolution, the synths hovered and punched and Roza’s voice soared just above it all. The group kept it slow paced for the first songs, and Roza made a comment about how odd it felt to perform in front of a bunch of seated people.

Then the band cheerily transitioned to “Sea Talk,” crafting a more upbeat version than the original found on her Stridulum EP, and inspiring a dance crowd to rise from the pews and migrate to the front of the stage. Though started by a few lone brave souls, the entire crowd was clearly intrigued by the chorus’s repeated line “Do you wanna know?” Yes, they did.

With the crowd feeling looser, Zola took advantage, launching into a series of fuller, livelier renditions of her album highlights, epitomized by standout “Night,” which inspired the entire crowd to dance in a wonderfully dramatic fashion, fully entering Zola’s world.
Ending rather abruptly after only 40 minutes, the band disappeared only to return for a one song, bittersweet encore.  More than anything, the concert provided an often unfound, unique atmosphere, a complete distraction from everything Grinnell, as even the oldest building on campus felt fresh and alive.

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