UK pop experimentalist Zilla With Her Eyes Shut has a taste for an aesthetic rooted back a millennia. Atmospheric arrangements play like ancient arena themes on her self-titled debut, orchestrated with soulful wisdom by the rising star.
Zilla may be new to the scene, but is no stranger to music. From age eight, she trained as a classical pianist as part of a conservatoire. At 18, she moved to London and incorporated this training into hip hop.
“Piano taught me how to escape – whether it was home, school or the world – and find a place where I could be pure and honest with myself,” she says.
In 2017, she made her debut on Accidental Records with a string of singles that would culminate quickly into the comfort of a full length. The album feels episodic with each track standing alone, though connections are made amongst themselves as ties that only loosely bind.
Introducing this work is “Get Ready,” shaking us to attention with a deep drone and an ascending voice that pierces a thick atmosphere. The use of Zilla’s repeating arms composing the cover art become clear as the thematic multiplicity sets the tone for the entire record. There is reassurance packed in this sense of urgency as senses fade into the distance.
Zilla is surrounded by narratives endowed with sentient attitudes – facets of her personality take solid shape as we gather a backstory. One character, “The Sleepwalker,” counts her blessings as she manages to navigate the world while avoiding the dangers of a waking life. She takes this advantage, gearing up to tell twelve stories of examined human experiences as she surrounds herself with creatively tweaked samples of worldly sounds.
“Get Your Way” rings like a Destiny’s Child jam and opts for those layered harmonies formed from just one voice. These stacks begin to make way for volleys of external sounds that ring playfully erratic. They pick up the pace and make themselves known as complementary to earnest vocals.
Production praise goes to Matthew Herbert, known well for his dynamism with everyday objects under multiple names. His 1998 debut featured an ensemble consisting exclusively of kitchen objects. 2001’s Bodily Functions sampled sounds made by the human body, from internal organs to hair’s reaction to various things. Herbert maintains this ethic in the studio, harvesting the surrounding resonance and bending it to his will. It is in this fortuitous collaboration that we find evidence of higher plans and perhaps are tempted to give way to artistic destiny.
By “Little Things,” we’re at warped rebounds of sound and witchy fermata. Electropop samples are inverted and co-opted for experimentation before the tracks shift and the scenery begins to change. “Cut Me Boy” reflects on a toxic relationship wrapped in a natural masochism. Zilla’s voice is choked up in the midst of the story, portraying a certain pain and hesitation.
“Whisper Whisper,” the album’s lead single, is elegantly placed toward the end of the record to prevent a top-heavy effect. We are compelled to remain tuned in as real-world sounds creep their way into the picture and offer inconvenient distraction.
This perspective and the resulting skills are proof this was a mirror universe the entire time. Though these confessions speak to trauma with a sense of anonymity, those with keen ears will discover subtle connections and may even feel comfortable in the familiarity. It’s a call-back for some who need to revisit nagging nuggets of memory in the interests of full recovery.
“Paris” closes us out and looks back with a pain of nostalgia. Fresh insight from new worlds and experiences can only do so much to shake the past, for better or worse. As the conclusion to this record, it serves as a sobering reminder that we think, we hear, we feel, therefore we are.