When news broke that Demonaz was leaving Immortal due to arthritis, it appeared the band’s days were numbered. It was hard to envision Immortal continuing to have success without its heart and soul. Surprisingly, Abbath was able to smoothly transition Immortal away from its signature fast and relentless holocaust metal sound and toward a more streamlined and epic brand of black metal. Their first release in the style, At the Heart of Winter was quite impressive. While there were a few awkward transitions and compositional choices, the quality of the riffs and melodies was top notch. It looked as if Immortal was ready to release a series of high quality epic black metal albums. Unfortunately, all such expectations were smashed with the flat and flavorless Damned in Black.
In principle, the idea behind Damned in Black is pretty good. It mostly sticks to the format of At the Heart of Winter but reintegrates a number of fast paced, back-breaking passages. While such a synthesis of the holocaust metal and epic black metal styles sounds promising, a lack of inspiration, quality and creativity keeps the album from producing anything noteworthy.
All the riffs on Damned in Black are dull and generic. Most sound like second rate versions of what can be found on At the Heart of Winter. The riffs are “epic” but in a very cookie cutter way. There’s a commercial gloss to all the songs. Really, other than having significantly less keyboards, the music on here isn't all that different from what one finds on Dimmu Borgir from the same time period. Often the central riffs are bulky and plodding (i.e. the main riff of “The Darkness That Embrace Me”). The faster passages are adequate, but do little more than regurgitate what one can find on Blizzard Beasts, only without the fire and venom. The closest the band gets to a good song is the title track, which contains a memorable, though not exactly good, chorus and fairly interesting guitar work during the bridge. That said, even this song sounds overly processed and uninspired.
Like At the Heart of Winter, Damned in Black was recorded at Abyss Studios. However, whereas the previous album had a big, textured sound, the sound quality here is very one dimensional. Part of that is due to the less ambitious songwriting. Without the highs and lows that made songs like “Withstand the Fall of Time” and “Solarfall” so riveting, the production results in a plastic sound.
Something also needs to be said about the god awful cover. Obviously, Immortal has never been known for tasteful album covers (though Diabolical Fullmoon Mystcism has a pretty cool one) but none of them have looked nearly as atrocious as the cover to Damned in Black. The cover, depicting the three members standing in front of a horribly produced CGI background of red and black smoke, looks like a WWE promo poster. Horgh, who is wearing a goofy smile, looks mentally challenged.
Damned in Black consummated Immortal’s decent into generic, mainstream black metal. It is simultaneously innocuous, commercial and plastic. It lacks spirit and it lacks ambition. In a phrase, Damned in Black is definitively mediocre.