The reigning kings of ambient heavy metal and doomy dirgecore have returned from the abyss on their new album, Hex. Earth's first studio disc since 1996's Pentastar: In the Style of Demons may shock the Seattle group's hardcore fan base. Rather than the downtuned, fuzzed-out congestion and angst-ridden riffing of old, Dylan Carlson and company now twang tunefully, albeit with tempos that suggest a mastodon maneuvering in a tar pit.
Although Earth has opened up and lightened its guitar attack, the band has not undergone a mood makeover. Emblematic songs like "The Dire and Ever Circling Wolves" and "An Inquest Concerning Teeth" trudge with a methodical plangency and despair, as chords forlornly hang in the air and decay for ages. On much of Hex, it sounds as if a heavy burden's been lifted from Carlson's shoulders, yet there's no air of celebration. The music's monolithic density has dissipated, but darkness still permeates the disc, like fibrosis in a coal miner's lungs.