Gracing the Triple Door Saturday night during Decibel Festival was an incredible Sacred Bones double header from Zola Jesus and Pharmakon. With a dazzling night sky of stars in the background and a visually arresting display from each up front, Saturday’s Optical session was one for the books, showcasing brilliant aural contrast as well as cerebral, creative parallels. Between the captivating cacophony of Pharmakon and an extra special Zola Jesus set backed by the Mivos Quartet, directed by JG Thirlwell, there couldn’t have been a better beginning to our Saturday night.
At first glance, Margaret Chardiet doesn’t really seem to fit the persona that her dark experimental music as Pharmakon evokes. Entering stage left in a clean, fitted black dress, long blonde hair hanging down in a perfectly normal fashion, Chardiet walks up to her mixer and sets a muddy, pulsing bass beat into motion. Staring blankly out at the darkened Triple Door, all members seating quietly enjoying their drinks and dinner, Chardiet screams into the microphone like a banshee. Equipped with distortion and reverb to boot, the house takes one collection gulp of air in before Pharmakon continues inviting us all in to her nightmarish world. You can tell why she’s here opening for Zola Jesus - the same desire to be completely out of the ordinary is there, joined with a love for the obscure and spooky. But where Zola Jesus tends toward melody and euphony, Pharmakon takes a hint from the horror prog masters of old like Goblin and creates a horror landscape that doesn’t need a visual to scare the living daylights out of you. The next track is made up of a series of loops, first a backing beat, then a clanging addition creation by Chardiet beating the crap out of her microphone on a sheet of tin before using the tin itself to give her voice a metallic, scraping quality with the next set of medusa screams. Chardiet is fucking terrifying up there. She may be beautiful and brilliant, but when she steps down onto the table of the front row between plates and wine glasses and screams full force into her microphone, it feels like she could turn you to stone in an instant. After a quick jaunt around the front set of tables, ending in Chardiet crouching in the darkest corner by the stage stairs screaming bloody murder into her microphone, the noise cut and Pharmakon waved goodbye. 30 minutes have never gone faster.
Zola Jesus is an artist in contrast. On her typical records, Nika Danilova’s commanding and uplifting voice is given quiet, atmospheric paradox by her darkwave production. But tonight, all was made of light with Zola Jesus. Both her tonight and on the new collaborative record Versions (quartet interpretations of favorites from Conatus and Stridulum II), JG Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet took her cuts to an orchestral pop context that simultaneously gave them the most accessible interpretation we’ve heard while maintaining a deep respect for the thoughts and feelings behind each. The collaboration here is brilliant. Thirlwell, an artist whose own use of contrast between dark and light is as brilliant as Danilova’s, is a wonderful muse for the quartet. Each arrangement tends towards euphony while still maintaining a hint of the anxiety and struggle that Zola Jesus songs evoke. As he quietly conducted and triggered drum samples in the shadows, Danilova stood front and center in a long, glowing gown like an angel with a prophecy. Danilova’s vocal power is hard to put into words. She is reserved in delivery and spacial use, but her voices carries like a opera solo. She is truly an artist without pier. There are few things that match the emotional captivity of the quartet version of “Avalanche” in the live setting. Even with such quiet voices, the Mivos Quartet took cuts like “In Your Nature” to extraordinary heights. Danilova floated between tables like a ghost, singing quiet ballads to speechless audiences of two or three at each, before finally returning to the stage to bid goodbye. Met with a standing ovation from all, Zola Jesus ended the third Optical session with a bang.