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During one of my routine commutes this weekend, I had the newly acquired Ghost record by Devin Townsend Project on play in the car. During car trips, I usually play something a little more upbeat, fast, and heavy — but this time, the dulcet tones of flute and acoustic guitar ran through the car. Previously, my car featured the airtime of Ghost‘s pissed off oddball of a sibling Deconstruction. Where there was once chaos and insanity is now host to ambiance and serenity. This morning, I was listening to the soundtracks to one of my favorite video game series, Portal—specifically, Portal 2: Songs To Test By, an ambient electronic soundscape to… well… test to. That’s when it hit me; why do metal fans tend to enjoy ambient music? Once you stop and really think about it, it’s quite fascinating how commonplace this dichotomy is in the world of extreme music.

For example, Devin Townsend’s discography is quite peculiar to look at for the uninitiated. On one hand, you have Strapping Young Lad, whose body of work can best be summed up as “GOD FUCKING DAMMIT” set to music. The music is heavy, fast, and relatively ugly. The lyrics are pissed off and sometimes whacky. Obviously, we all love Strapping Young Lad. What self-described metal head doesn’t? The band’s whole discography is seminal, and if I had to make a list of bands everyone interested in heavy music should hear, Strapping would no doubt be high on said list. On the other hand, you have one of Devin’s solo albums, Hummer. To say Hummer is subdued would be putting it lightly. Hummer is music to fall asleep to, plain and simple. Not to mention the aforementioned Ghost and Deconstruction, whose disparate sounds come from the same artist on the same release date.

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Then again, you also have bands that effectively combine ambiance and heavy tunes. You’ve got your post-metal bands like Isis and Cult Of Luna, who allow sludgy riffs to drop out and give way to spacey movements and atmospheres. On the more extreme side of things, you have the burgeoning genre of post-black metal. Deafheaven have broken through lately, combining lovely shoegaze with visceral black metal on their debut album Roads to Judah. It’s almost completely disparate, but for some reason it all works cohesively — two sonic extremes that compliment each other perfectly. This fascinates me to think about.

What is it about us that draws us to ambient music? I could go from mind-numbing breakdowns to ethereal crescendos, from the dense and dehumanizing Anaal Nathrakh to the lush and powerful If These Trees Could Talk at the drop of a hat (or at the press of a shuffle button). It would seem like we sort of push ourselves to the extremes with metal, which is sonically powerful, but could it also be unconsciously overwhelming us to the point that we’re drawn to spacey soundscapes in an effort to “recharge”? I mean, I’ve never met anyone who listened to only ambient music that didn’t also enjoy other types of music, and when you take the average Joe who listens to whatever is on the radio, they’re bound to think that metal is too much and that ambient music is too little.

Are we a special breed? Is it a psychological draw to equilibrium or are we just more open minded? Am I just over thinking here? Let me know.

– JR

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