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Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method (Southern Lord)

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.

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