Album Review: Knifeplay – Animal Drowning

[Topshelf; 2022]

Knifeplay‘s primary songwriter TJ Strohmer recorded a handful of projects throughout the 2010s before starting this project as a solo act, seemingly hopping on the bandwagon hauled by fellow Philly gazers Spirit of the Beehive and Nothing. While those two bands reached larger audiences and saw success faster, Knifeplay, now a quintet, have quietly been strumming up interest through anti-patterns in the genre. Working against the grain, if you will, Strohmer’s intent is to create gorgeous arrangements around sorrow.

You know you’re really in for it when an album’s first words are “I am nobody,” which is how Knifeplay begin their second record Animal Drowning, setting the table appropriately. Strohmer’s got the vocal palette perfected as he spirals through “I hope to make peace / With everyone I’ve ever met,” a far cry from typical shoegaze banter. It isn’t hopeful, it’s remorseful. Mixing the styles of slowcore, shoegaze, dream pop, and maybe a tiny bit of emo, Knifeplay dazzle us with an album overflowing with feeling.

Juxtaposing orchestral strings and washed out fuzz is the key to Knifeplay’s allure. It’s no gimmick either, the band’s splicing genres and stitching them together seamlessly. Working specifically with Philly producer Jeff Zeigler was the right move too. Known for his production for The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile and Nothing, Zeigler’s got a grip on how to make the fuzz sound cold and despot when necessary, then swing it back to warmth.

This is heard on “Lonely Sun”, where the washed out guitars blend with Strohmer’s soaring wistful vocals. It then flips to crunchy noise for a daring outro that proves the band isn’t just messing with the aesthetic for kicks – these guys did their homework and have made a shoegaze album worth revisiting over and over again. That’s what makes Animal Drowning ultimately special. The genre won’t die, thankfully, so long as bands like Knifeplay continue to manipulate the trajectory and glue new paths to it.

“Bleed” swarms the mind with trancing riffs in the breakdown, all pairing majestically with Strohmer’s saccharine “Until you fade away.” The singer seesaws between abundant lyricism and minimalism. One moment he’s musing on religion it sounds with “Why’d they have to make you carry the cross? / Why’d they have to make you into a pure idea?” from “Ryan Song”; the next, he’s vanishing into the background to allow the rest of his band to carry the noise to new heights like on “Cold Rain”.

Animal Drowning finds time to even push the band’s aesthetic to the brink with “Promise”. It’s an easy setup, with Strohmer’s bleak words “You’re born into this shit / And you are what you are,” compromising with the sedating instrumentals. It hooks you, reels you in, then tears you apart with its crushing third act noise blitz. Screeching guitars, blown out speakers, and then a return to normalcy all highlight the band’s trapeze act.

It’s near-mystifying actually how a band like Knifeplay can exist in the shoegaze scene for so long and just now be picking up steam. Strohmer’s earlier solo work garnered some attention but as a full band this watershed moment is precisely the shot in the arm shoegaze and dream pop needed. Dozens of homages to those classic pioneers pop up every year, then disappear within a few years. Knifeplay have been slowing building to this moment and it’s a resounding success.