Philosophically speaking, cōnātus is the will to live, or to exist. In more specific metaphysical terms, it also means to improve. Niki Rosa Danilova has never made any secret about her ambition to progress. In her young but prolific career as Zola Jesus, Danilova’s music has evolved from ardent, indecipherable noise rock to refined new romantic gothic-pop. Conatus continues on an evolutionary path. Where it’s certain that the latest Zola Jesus LP exists, only aspects of it meet her more focused philosophical compulsion.
Just a year ago the Stridulum EP was beefed up and repackaged as Stridulum II, a proper full length album – a record heavy on cavernous atmospherics, punching balladry and swirling operatics with leanings on industrial electro. But out of these elements, it’s the industrial electro baton that Danilova chooses to run furthest with. The production on Conatus is slick: tribal rhythms with crisp mechanical effects, glooming synth sheets and reverberating vocals. Chopped and processed, Niki’s voice is synthesised into ‘Vessel’, keeping digital percussion along with the rusty industrial hammering. More than ever, Niki’s singing is rich and deep. And just how at times Florence can be too belting or Guy Garvey too velvety, Zola Jesus can be too full-throated. But her voice is unmistakable, inherent to her identity, and it’s better to be indomitable than meekly subdued – though a little restraint can go a long way.
While production has progressed, songwriting/craft remains somewhat stagnant. ‘Skin’ and album closer ‘Collapse’ provide the ballads – minimal in instrumentation; brooding piano and organ with mournful strings, ghostly shades and affecting desolate singing. But there’s nothing on Conatus close to the overwhelming romance of ‘Night’ or ‘Sea Talk’. However, with the pouring electro beats and bubbling synth keys of ‘Seekir’, progressive electronica of ‘In Your Nature’ and slapping ‘80s melody and rousing chorus of ‘Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake’, Zola Jesus successfully steps further into pop territory. Not easy terrain. At 22, Danilova can well afford another stepping stone album – each release bolder and more resolute than the last. With that, Conatus certainly lives up to its name.