- Mark Angel Brandt
- Craig Roxburgh
- Dan Jackson
- Gav Russell
- Joy Merten
- Kevin Hoffin
- Nick Dunn
- Sab Ramdoyal
- Zaina Nazerally
By now the Internet and print world is utterly saturated with lists of people’s “Top Records of 2014”, either dashed off on a napkin or sweated over for hours on end. We here at Broken Amp question this logic, in particular the use of the word “Top”, or “Best” in other cases. How can one top-notch record be ‘better’ than another? What separates a superb doom record from a superb black metal record, except for the taste of the listener?
Therein lies the beauty. Every listener has a unique appreciation for music, operating by certain subconscious parameters that inform how they internalize the sounds that enter their brain. In the end, these lists boil down to which albums the listener still finds themselves reaching for on their chosen audio player, whether scrolling on an iPad or flicking through stacks of vinyl.
And so, after a brainstorm session with the writers, Kevin Hoffin suggested an utterly brilliant alternative: each writer submits one piece on one album “that’s meant something. Something we loved and didn’t expect to, something that’s opened up a new taste in music.” Or something which has profoundly affected the writer emotionally, as has been the case with many of these submissions.
In the tabs at the top of this article are submissions from some of the staff at BAHQ. They range in every possible way, from genre through length of submission to how the person connected to the music. We left this task open to interpretation, and it has paid back bountifully. Each piece is accompanied by a method of listening to the album, either via Bandcamp or YouTube in most cases.
We hope you enjoy reading about these albums as much as we have writing about them, and wish you happy holidays. We’ll see you in the New Year.
– Mark Angel Brandt, editor
Alcest – Shelter
Considering Shelter came out in January and has barely left my ears, I would say ‘job well done’ to Alcest. While I had an inkling that the band’s musical direction was moving into lighter climes, as Les Voyages De L’Âme was already noticeably less ‘black metal’ than its predecessor, I was one of those deeply curious as to where project mastermind Neige would go on their fourth ‘metal-lacking’ album. It’s not my top record for this year, but the album makes a strong argument for the most honest representation of an musician’s inner desire finally coming to light. Neige has stated in several interviews that he hasn’t felt comfortable playing black metal for a long time, and this complete distancing from the genre sounds so natural, so genuine, it’s impossible to not be swept up in it.
Taking reference from his love of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, the shoegazing atmospheric rock that Neige has crafted embodies the album title wholly; it is a shelter on so many levels. It has been a sanctuary for me: from metal, from work, from personal issues that have cropped up this year. When I play this record, it is a 45-minute time out from the world. “Voix Sereines” is one of the best songs Neige has written, and the vocal spot in “Away” of Neil Halstead, one of Neige’s musical heroes no less, is simply sublime. The whole album shimmers with Birgir Jon Birgirsson’s mixing touch, and resolves in such a way that it feels completely natural for me to metaphorically flip the record and start all over again.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of this raw musical honesty came from watching the material live. Having seen the band before, it was quite striking to see Neige genuinely smiling onstage, losing himself completely in the songs, especially on 10-minute encore “Délivrance”. He has never seemed happier and more content with his music, and if this is the kind of quality we can expect from Alcest reborn, then I for one completely embrace this transition.
1. Neige interview with Spin.
The Color Morale – Hold On Pain Ends
There is no point denying that 2014 has not been an eventful year for both music, and my personal life. I started the year off in a relationship that then quickly crashed and burned, before I embarked on a hell-bent journey to kill myself by amassing a total of seven sites to write for, while finishing my final year of high school. I was also coming to terms with several demons that had been dogging my every footstep – ones that can just be lumped under the term of self-harm.
I spent the year on a quest to find that one album that truly resonated with my emotions, and that was The Color Morale’s Hold On Pain Ends. They preach the message of hope, and overcoming things like suicide and self-harm, like it was the gospel. In my desperate attempt to overcome something that had such an enormous hold on my life, Hold On Pain Ends was like an aggressive course of medication that was applied straight to the cancerous rot that was consuming my general well-being and preventing me from being happy. I’d be lying if I said that I did not break down into tears while listening to this album. Lyrics like “Leave a mark upon the world, not across your arms” hit home with the anti-suicide message that I try desperately to promote with my own flimsy words. In a year of trials and tribulations, Hold On Pain Ends is a glowing beacon of self-assurance and bastion of strength and hope.
An added point to the sheer brilliance of the album is the departure from their original post-hard-core sound as lead singer Garret Rapp abandons the unclean vocals in favour for bone-chilling singing. It’s a move that he got flack for, but a move that sounds absolutely amazing, backed-up by the heavier guitar and drum sections. It really makes the album more accessible, and allows the lyrical message to be conveyed in a way that it will touch many more people’s lives.
Skull Fist – Chasing the Dream
In 2014, I’ve spent more time investigating metal’s past than ever before. Last Rites ran a fantastic series on essential 80s metal albums, which was instrumental in my seeking out and devouring older metal. 2014 is the year I finally learned to appreciate Dio-era Black Sabbath, Saxon, Accept and more. Skull Fist’s Chasing the Dream to finally mention the album I want to highlight this year, hits some salient emotional points for me, as I’ve reflected more on my age and getting older. At this station in my life, Skull Fist’s blend of early 80s Judas Priest, speed metal and borderline glam metal is exactly what I’ve needed.
Musically, Chasing the Dream echoes my 2014 theme of being obsessed with the first half of heavy metal’s life while I inch ever closer toward the second half of my own. It’s also reminded me that the music itself can be ageless, as Chasing the Dream has a youthful exuberance that is simply undeniable. I’ll apologize for this sounding as vain as it probably is, but this album has made it easier for me to come to terms with getting older and loving older music. I’ll never give up on seeking out new, exciting metal bands innovating and pushing things forward. With Chasing the Dream, Skull Fist proves that we shouldn’t give up on paying reverence the musical heroes of our past, either.
1. 80s Essentials on Last Rites.
Pianos Become The Teeth – Keep You
The fact that this time last year I would have struggled to make it through an entire Pianos Become The Teeth song, let alone a whole record, makes it pretty surprising to find myself sat here proclaiming their new LP Keep You as my record of the year. I’ve tried on many occasions in the past to get into one of modern screamo’s most respected acts, and always failed miserably. Were it not for the advice of a trusted friend, who was as equally surprised by this LP, to “stop what you’re doing and listen to Keep You right now,” I would have happily let this pass me by. And I would have missed out on so much.
At the risk of widespread fan alienation (and alienate it did, with some fans and critics writing the record off totally), Pianos Become The Teeth took bold steps in adjusting their sound for this new offering. Their frantic, angular post-hardcore has been replaced by a somber, gentle melancholy akin to The National. Kyle Durfey’s vocals style is no longer a desperate screaming but a soft, tender singing. The songcraft alone is enough to earn it a place among the best-of-the-year crowd, but it’s Durfey’s lyrics which push it to the forefront. They’re so personal to him that they often border on being incomprehensible; you feel awash at sea listening to his words, floating through an endless ocean of complicated metaphors and deeply unique scenarios. However, revealed by repeat listens, there are countless anchors littered among his dense wordplay that I could grab onto and mould to fit to my own experiences.
I found that working my way through the tales he was spinning was like slowly cleaning a dusty mirror; the more I rubbed away at the surface, the more I got to see my own reflection staring back at me. Personally, 2014 has been a darker year than I could have possibly predicted. The sudden loss of a family member, and the crater of existential grief that it leaves behind, kickstarted a year which eventually saw me come to terms with and battle a depression that had been lurking at the edges of my life for longer than I can remember. A battle which, I’m pleased to say, I’m now winning. Without some of the tools that music provides me, I’m not so sure I would have done as well as I have. It’s a record like Keep You, one so touching, so powerful and so reinforcing, that reminds me of the strength that music can provide. The symbol that it can offer. That of a lighthouse in the fog, leading you home to safety.
Botanist – VI: Flora
VI: Flora is the brightest of all Botanist’s albums. His other albums are darker, told from the perspective of a “crazed man of science”  who lives in the Verdant Realm, a sanctuary where he lives surrounded by plants and isolated from the rest of humanity. In his last installment, IV: Mandragora, the army of plants Botanist has been amassing destroys humanity, and VI: Flora is about the rebirth and rejuvenation that occurs afterwards. This album is fascinating as it works both as an intellectual exploration of black metal and simply as a beautiful piece of art.
Calling the project “post-black metal,” Otrebor (the main creative force behind Botanist) takes the genre’s usual tropes and subverts them to further his environmentalist (or, pro-plant) agenda. There are still blast beats and screamed vocals low in the mix, but Botanist trades in tremolo-picked guitars for a hammered dulcimer, which sounds transcendent and triumphant as he describes nature retaking its rightful place in the world. Even the album’s instrumentation shows Otrebor’s knowledge of the genre and willingness to work against tradition.
Taking inspiration from black metal’s fascination with nature, Botanist lives alone and contemplates his spiritual connection to it. However, he has stated that in contrast with his earlier work, Flora is less overly misanthropic, and it’s “actually about loving nature more than hating people.”  Here, common themes of self-isolation and reverence for nature are reformed into a new tale of environmental awareness and spiritual connection.
While the album has its intellectual and political sides, Flora is also simply a gorgeous record. The hammered dulcimer rings like a hundred hand-bells, uncanny and other-wordly as its rhythms contrast with the drums. The dulcimer recalls traditional American folk music, and the album’s oddness reminds me of Sun City Girls. I’m not one for metal that rehashes tired old clichés, sounds and ideas but rather moves forward with new influences while still honoring the genre’s past. Flora is a singular record in its ability to do so.
Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare
(Season of Mist)
Mayhem have been a firm personal favourite since black metal consumed me, just as much as I have consumed it, in the last four or five years. Since I had a preference for death metal, I had failed to delve into black metal deeply before that, feeling that a lot of it came across as anaemic. This my confession, and more my fault than anything else: black metal is rarely digestible in the same way as other genre of metal. Layers upon layers of meaning, everything conveys a message; a passive approach to music consumption is less than useless. Mayhem’s career often leads to their sonic output being overshadowed by events that happened twenty years ago; partially due to their not-so strenuous attitude to release scheduling, partially due to the temerity of the events in question. However, every Mayhem release has taken a twisted genre and wrung it further into unrecognisable territory; that is of course, until Esoteric Warfare.
Esoteric Warfare is the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Ordo Ad Chao from 2007, a notoriously difficult and impenetrable album. The band choreographed the piece to be a harrowing listen; simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic, it is truly a masterpiece of the subculture. Esoteric Warfare is different, different in that it pulls back on the avant-garde leanings of the previous album, in favour of a more direct visceral attack on the senses. This was a necessary move for Mayhem, as with the departure of Blasphemer (chief contributor on previous albums), a continuation of Ordo Ad Chao had the potential to be a disaster, if not near impossible. Although, some may call this album “safe,” and “safe” for Mayhem is a serious criticism, anything would be safe when compared to the twisted behemoth that preceded it.
This album is not my favourite from this year, far from it, but it is a piece of work that I have connected with above all other releases in 2014. It is a worthy album by Mayhem, and has maintained a fixed position in my rotation. Dark and disturbing, Mayhem once again shift the sonic template away from what other bands are doing; and still convince audiences that this is black metal. The tendency for many bands to play with over-long constructions that agonise in their own lengthy way, is shied away from here, and the proverbial “fat” is trimmed back to produce an album that is unafraid of being unconventional among its peers. This ladies and gentlemen, is the album that has spoken to me loudest all in 2014.
Allegaeon – Elements of the Infinite
Allegaeon, masters of tech-death, released their third album Elements of the Infinite in June. If the summer sun didn’t burn you, this record certainly will. Elements is a band on fire, bringing together the better elements of their first two albums, and introducing newer flourishes that should entertain both new and established fans. From the grandeur of opener ‘Threshold of Perception’ through to the epic closer ‘Genocide for Praise – Vals for the Vitruvian Man’, the band hold nothing back, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Allegaeon were, along with Amon Amarth and Arch Enemy, my gateway into the more extreme end of the metal spectrum. Although I’m still dipping my toes into these waters, this album is an absolutely brilliant example of why I enjoy doing so. Usually, I find there are one or two forgettable songs on an album, or songs I just don’t like. This is not the case here. While the second song, ‘Tyrants of the Terrestrial Exodus’ is possibly my favourite, it’s a difficult choice from an album full of fantastic songs. Only with a band like Allegaeon could take head-spinning concepts such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Golden Ratio, and to experience the event horizon of a black hole, and mix it with absolutely crushing death metal, with beautiful Spanish-style guitar solos worthy of Rodrigo y Gabriela. I love it, and I can’t wait for more.
1. The Golden Ratio.
Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun
There many words I can think of when I listen to this record – majestic, colourful, dark, romantic. The list can go on. Each song of Insomnium’s Shadows of the Dying Sun is tight with a unique atmosphere and focused with their fuse of melodic death metal. I can’t help but hum the harmonious guitar work and melodic singing. The growls are deep and grab the listener by the horns.
I listen to the album nearly once every week. With each listen, I can hear a new sound or experience a new feeling that brings a smile to my face. There are slight subtle changes from their last record One For Sorrow, but not to the point it doesn’t remove them from their signature sound. It is a near-perfect record and I highly recommend it to any metal listener who loves an audible journey of dark soundscapes.
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Putting 2014 in words is an extremely difficult process for me. So much happened that I haven’t thought about in months, things that I hid away. The new year came around, and I finally finished tapering off of my anti-depressants, and was struggling with extreme withdrawal. Constant shaking, absent-mindedness, and a lack of appetite to the point where I was practically starving myself, were just a few of the things I was experiencing. In February, my cousin passed away from cancer at the very young age of 25. We buried her on Valentine’s Day. My 19th birthday was three days later. It was, quite possibly, the worst birthday I’ve ever had. I got into an argument with my sister that left me feeling extremely vulnerable, and empty; I still haven’t quite recovered from it. A few weeks passed, and I wasn’t in very good shape. I was in the car and put on Spotify radio, and drove around aimlessly for about 30 minutes or so, until “White Fire” started to play. I started crying so much I had to pull over.
Angel Olsen‘s Burn Your Fire For No Witness was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. I listened to the album in its entirety and fell in love with it. It soon became the background to the times I spent reflecting, times I needed healing, and times I felt lost. It left me raw, allowed me to feel the things I was terrified to admit to myself. It saved me. The songs change from slow, somber, Sibylle Baier-esque vocals like on ‘Iota’ to more upbeat, twangy, country-inspired songs like ‘Hi-Five’.
The sound is simple, but the emotions within are complex.