Zola Jesus (and EMA) at Heaven

So earlier this week on Wednesday (November 23rd) I went to see Zola Jesus play at Heaven in London (supported by EMA who I will come to LATER ON).

Zola Jesus previously had always been one of those acts that I wanted to like more than I actually did. Her music very much fits into the same The Knife/Fever Ray/Planningtorock/Gazelle Twin spectrum of rather introverted vocal female electronica (pretty pretentious sub-genre I just invented right), indeed she supported Fever Ray last year when she briefly toured the UK. However I always found that despite really liking a few of her tracks, a lot of it really merged into one for me, and I found some of her stuff generally really rather unpleasant to listen to. However I had been enjoying her (slightly) more accessible third album, the recently released “Conatus” enough to buy some tickets to see her live, I was pretty curious at the least – I imagine if anything she would be pretty theatrical live. That EMA was “supporting” her on the tour (more a 80/20 split duel bill to be honest) only made the gig more appealing to me – to be honest I probably would have gone to see EMA had she been playing a gig solo.

Anyway, Zola Jesus is really, really absolutely incredible live, like seriously brilliant. I am 6ft2, and she barely even reaches my elbow height-wise, which makes me imagine she probably stands sub-5ft height wise, something that is utterly baffling when you consider the sheer amount and scope of her voice that comes out of such a small body. Her voice is seriously absolutely INCREDIBLE. She is classically trained as an opera singer, something that undoubtedly helps create such strong vocals.

Quite often on her records I saw (past tense) her vocals almost being an instrument alongside the backing, not really paying attention to the lyrics with her vocal sounds all kind of merging into one. However having now seen her live, my opinion of this has been completely REVISED. I found her quite an emotional performer, really highlighting lyrics in tracks that I hadn’t even noticed before, and seriously making a bit of an emotional connection with her lyrics. She really bought her songs to life with her vocals, whilst pretty much hitting a 100% note perfect strike rate. It really was quite something to watch, particularly as I hadn’t previously been all that hugely bothered by a lot of her music previous to seeing her live. I have definitely revised my opinion on a lot of her material since.

A wonderful youtube user named “knapperfire” has posted several high-quality videos from the gig, check out this performance of “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake” my personal favourite Zola track, and a pretty good demonstration of her flawless vocal (although not at all her best performance of the night) –

Zola biggest problem of the evening to be honest was the crowd she was playing to. As I said, her performance was pretty flawless. She was totally giving all that her 4ft11 body possibly could. She is obviously a rather introverted character, and performed with lots of cute self-concious little ticks with her hands, and unconscious clutching of her hair and face. The crowd were really quite dull and partisan, politely clapping after every song and barely moving throughout the gig. I never expect a gig to turn into a whirling dancefloor, but considering Zola was giving such a storming performance I expected a few more people to be a bit more into it. The crowd only really came alive when Zola played arguably her most famous (and breakout) track “Night” which was a bit of a staple of indie/electro discos last year –

She played it about fourth from last, and finally I saw a bit of movement in the audience around me – perhaps the majority of the people there weren’t very familiar with her material, but regardless I expected people to be a bit more impressed with how well she was performing. The drums were insane! Zola’s vocals were insane! How she performed and moved across the stage was perfect!

Zola came into the crowd a couple of times during her set, and wandered through the floor of the venue (similar to what the singer from Fucked Up does), and most of the people at the gig seemed to react in a very British fashion (like a stunned mullet) to a midget vocal powerhouse pacing through the crowd wailing her guts out. I found it a bit rude towards the performer at times to be honest.

Despite my reservation about the crowd, I had a really good time. Like I said, I was pretty amazed at how good Zola was live (and have now gone into full lunatic mode, listening to her non-stop and really en joing her material a whole lot more than prior to seeing her). London was treated to an encore (Zola initially ran off stage like a mouse scurrying across the kitchen after the last song of her set without saying anything, leaving the crowd a bit confused as to whether she was going to play an encore or not) which she said was a special treat for London, so hopefully she had a good time too. Perhaps as her fanbase grows the people watching her will be a bit more receptive to her dark, gloomy, gothy, industrial charms.

I have to mention the support act and Zola’s labelmate also, EMA –

More of a second billing than a support act, EMA could probably play a London solo gig in her own right had she got a little more material to play. Her album “Past Life Martyred Saints” is one of my favourites of the year, and like Zola she seriously gave a really good performance (I am not being a biased fanboy honest, she was really quite excellent).

To be honest I think EMA was a bit pissed off about having to share the bill, as she was certainly treating her slot like her own headline gig, and was a pretty confident performer.

Again the crowd really pissed me off, although I imagine many hadn’t heard EMA’s material. However her performance of her track “The Grey Ship” was seriously INCREDIBLE. One of the best live performances I have seen all year. “The Grey Ship” is an awesome epic dark 7 minute long track about EMA’s Nordic ancestry, one of my biggest max tracks of the year and one that I think is probably gonna ride high on quite a lot of year end best-of lists –

About half way through the track, the song changes somewhat, and basically sounds a bit like a giant vacuum in the galaxy is sucking the life out of the world in a giant whirlpool of destruction. Its a pretty amazing moment. Basically the sound of the apocalypse, you gotta love it. Anyway I was a bit dubious as to how it was going to translate live, but I was really looking forward to seeing EMA play it. Her live performance of it was perfectly pitched. Basically when the whirlpool of destruction section of the song started, the bass was cranked up to about 700, making the whole venue literally shake – I’m talking almost teeth chattering shake, like when you go to a proper drum and bass night. It was freaking awesome, and bought the track to life ridiculously so – adding a chorus of guitars and a dramatic violin burst out by the keyboard player it was a bit of a special moment. The crowd barely applauded.

What was wrong with the crowd at this venue I DO NOT KNOW, the performance was worthy of an X Factor style ludicrous standing-ovation, and yet EMA barely got more than a few polite claps. The joys of being a relatively unknown musician I guess.

The rest of EMA’s set was good, but not as mind-blowing as “The Grey Ship”. It did feel a bit self-concious with how she presented herself on stage a few times, and at one point she smashed a guitar on stage (again to complete nonchalance from the dreary audience) but immediately had another guitar waiting in the wings for her to play immediately on her next track, which felt less spontaneous and more contrived to be honest.

EMA seemed to be having a good time though, and appeared excited to be playing London, even saying it was her “best gig ever” when she finished. It that is her best gig ever (and performance wise she was excellent) I dread to think what other audiences she has performed to were like.

So basically, great gig (really great gig, I was so impressed with how well both acts performed), utterly dreadful audience.

I am so into Zola right now its not even funny. I said in one of the opening paragraphs I used to find some her material a bit unlistenable – definitely not the case anymore. I well suggest people check her out live if she is playing in your yard at any point soon, and definitely check out her new album “Conatus” if you want the easiest route into her sound – her other two albums can be a little difficult to penetrate at first. “Vessel” and “Night are probably her two most famous tracks (“Vessel” having a pretty beautiful video below) –

But as I mentioned before “Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake” is my Zola track of choice, despite its vaguely ridiculous title. Utterly sublime.

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5 responses

  1. whereabouts were you in the crowd? i was pretty near the front and most of the people (inlcuding myself) seemed pretty into it, although i do agree there were a few too many people just standing still

    nonetheless it was a really great show and exceeded all my expectations. i’ve been a pretty big zj fan since stridulum dropped last year and seeing the stuff off the new record live has made me appreciate conatus way more. nika’s an awesome performer. and yeah she’s way shorter than i was expecting (i’m 6 ft 1 and when she passed me in the crowd she seemed even smaller haha), especially with a voice like that. didn’t take anything away from the performance though – if anything it made it better

    good review anyway man. good to hear more and more people who enjoyed it as much as i did. definitely gonna be getting tickets the next time she’s in london (fingers crossed for a former ghosts tour next year)

    November 28, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    • notaparticularlygreatdancer

      Ha reading my post back I was perhaps a little strong on the crowd, but I do maintain that in general they were pretty rubbish. I was about middle of the room, and some of the people around me seemed more interested in going to the bar than watching the gig – something I could totally understand if it was really lame, but she was being freaking awesome..I guess I just didn’t get their reaction. To be fair to the front, a couple of my friends who are much shorter than myself squeezed off to the front to watch the gig and they said the crowd were more responsive up there, but I dunno, if Zola Jesus comes storming up to you mid-performance smile or something, its kinda rude to just stand and look perplexed by the whole thing.

      Yeah it way exceeded my expectations too. I liked (not loved) Stridulum last year, and was starting to fall in love with Conatus recently, but since the gig its been a full blown infatuation! Well want to see her live again, totally on the exciting wavelength too now where I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

      November 29, 2011 at 1:12 am

  2. Alx

    I’m not a big fan of the new LP and I have found the studio version of Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake to be indifferent at best. Having said that, I was blown away by her live performance of it and after searching to discover which one it was (I hadn’t even noticed it before the show), I must have seen the live video more than 50 times in the last couple of days (which is funny since the views counter still stays stuck at around 60 which was the number when I first found it)

    November 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm

  3. BLD

    Firstly, London crowds are always like this. I too get annoyed when people drift to the bar during a performance but that’s always happened. Personally I’m quite pleased that the place didn’t explode into a heaving mass as I came to see Zola Jesus and not put up with the crowd acting like misbehaved teenagers instead. I fell in love with Stridulum and The Spoils, so the only disappointments of the evening were the absence of some older material (understandable, given the need to promote Conatus) and a shorter set (where was “Manifest Destiny”?). She could really pull off an extra half-hour if she wanted to, provided her voice holds for that long.

    As for EMA… well, I and others with me agreed that she was trying far too hard to be edgy and confrontational. Wrecking her guitar and throwing bits of it into the crowd is something we’ve all seen before, and she was fairly unmemorable- not the worst, but not really great either.

    December 1, 2011 at 2:14 am

  4. also this is a pretty trivial question but does anyone remember which song was playing when nika came into the crowd the first time? for some reason i keep thinking it was stridulum but after watching a few videos of other shows from the same tour she came offstage during seekir. i remember her playing both of those tracks but can’t recall which was the one i’m thinking about

    December 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

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