Zola Jesus & EMA - Manchester Academy 3
Erika M. Anderson unfurls that scar spangled banner, holds aloft a catalogue of (self) hate crimes, fragments of abuse, emotional dislocation, shattered love. Laugh it up, folks! EMA, in town to support her label mate, affords a politely enthusiastic early crowd a glimpse into the schizoid venting that is Past Life Martyred Saints, a debut album that grabs 2011 by the neck and brands its name to its forehead. In a world overrun with the clumsily self-regarding, artists who too easily and cheaply flick the intensity to an unconvincing 11, Anderson makes her mark by avoiding the bear trap of studious confessionals. By stepping away from overloading the focus, by not dulling our senses with self-examination on macro setting, she pulls us in. She sweeps deep and wide, forces the listener to map their response. Drill your own hole, says her beautifully fractured debut.
The EMA songbook gains emotional resonance via a scattergun whipcrack, a willingness to send her creations into rattling hyperdrive. A penchant for acid drop confessionals doesn't diminish live clout. 45 minutes with EMA is enough to shake your bones and send you reeling for the comforts of the bar before the headliner appears. Certainly, at a startlingly committed headline performance around the corner at the 'cosier' Deaf Institute a couple of months back, Anderson and her unconventional touring band (violin/keyboards, a second guitar, drums) melted the walls. If tonight isn't quite as exultant, put that down to a bigger room and her position on the bill. That said, she manages the tension between songs ("Tough crowd," she whispers at one pointwhen a joke falls flat) with her usual sly regard and blasts choice cuts from the album. The approach tonight is playful derailment rather than the previous tightly-wound intensity. There's the occasional slip when the band fall out of time but it's rarely less than compelling. A closing 'California' almost falls flat and there's no 'Red Star (the album's epic, spiralling close-out) but the battery of 'Butterfly Knife' ("Mmm. We'll play something nice for you now...") and a thorough demolition of 'The Grey Ship' are enough to remind you who led 2011's new art riot.
Later, as we file out, a glimpse into the larger Academy 2 and whaddya know? Mmm-bopping their way back into the hearts of what looks like a healthy (and very female) crowd are Hanson! Boggles the mind as to what our pair made of it all when they arrived at the venue. Anderson, to all intents and purposes the all-American girl who probably could have made the cheerleading squad...until she got caught smoking and told the coach to go fuck himself, probably jammed with them and hung out. But Niki Danilova wouldn't, couldn't possibly, have even known who they were. You can't be Zola Jesus and be familiar with socio-political signifiers like Pot Noodles, Simon Cowell and bloody Hanson. The electro-gothicims of Zola Jesus are modelled on a plane high above the slimy predilictions of the new century's cultural settings. They suggest another time, another galaxy. Far, far away and then an awkward bus connection.
Second album Conatus made its inarguable case via the usual methods (that voice, a brooding arrangement of percussion, synths and strings, and lyrics/delivery cloaked in mystery) with the thrilling additions of sweeter, sharper hooks. Sacrificing a portion of mood for a dose of melody was a smart move. Tonight's set, with the focus on her latest work, sports a canny profile - the ups and downs, ebbs and flows, feed a smartly programmed set.
Was it Dali who said your art should look like your dreams? On this evidence, Nika Danilova gets enough quality REM to fuel her parched soundscapes for the next few decades. The Zola Jesus manifesto exists in a hazy twilight, a murky hinterland in which the literal and the dreamlike exist both at odds and as one. As with her labelmate's dayglo explosives, Danilova's minimalist orchestrations could so easily have been a stirring, but vaguely unsatisfying, edifice of style over content. But somewhere beneath the cool stylings there's a steely grasp of songcraft. If the likes of 'Vessels' and 'Avalanche' hit home - and tonight, enlivened by a an expectant, involved crowd, they bloom - it allows the mood pieces ('Sea Talk', 'Collapse') space to make their mark.
Would it be churlish to pick at the presentation? Yes, Danilova herself has the presence of a shark in your bath tub. Blessed with the kind of supermodel looks that seem to travel beyond 'pretty' (Ms. K, nailing it, says she's "actually probably beautiful") into a kind of alien androgyny, and sporting a floor length silver grey affair with the season's must-have brown fur bodywarmer, it's a good job she's stage front and hypnotic. That way, if you really try hard, you can take your focus off her band (drummer and three keyboard players), whose stage get-up is Rammstein meets early Scorpions. One of the keyboard players prods an Apple Mac perched above his kit - if you'd wandered in late, you'd think he was there to fix it. Hey, they play their part magnificently and fill the room with a thundering pulse whose beats heat the corpuscles, so what's a few bad haircuts between friends? Then again, with one of pop's most devilishly distracting characters stood in front of them, you'd probably not even notice they were there.