There is definitely an ironic tinge to this album’s title, as aside from the haunting album cover; “Damned In Black” is the furthest from the traditional Black Metal style of all of IMMORTAL’s releases. Like most great bands that manage to last longer than a small handful of studio albums, they were never content to stick to one specific formula and have spliced in an array of other Metal sub-genres into their now somewhat clichéd Blackened imagery and storytelling. Much like its epic predecessor, crossover appeal to non-Black Metal fans is present via a very polished studio production and an approach to extreme Metal that avoids the excessive blasting and blurring that dominated their earlier efforts.
In terms of overall song presentation, this album listens a lot closer to the enjoyable yet non-earth shattering album “Battles In The North”, in that the songs are fairly compact and easy to follow. They lack the chaotic riffs, rapid fire drum work, and flow more like mid to late 80s Thrash songs rather than the abruptly changing and extremely short sonic frenzies of their 3rd and 4th studio albums; yet they simultaneously listen in a more straightforward manner than the epic compositions of “At The Heart Of Winter”. In essence, Abbath and company have traded in the Viking era BATHORY and MANOWAR tendencies for something that maintains the Teutonic Thrash elements of their newer sound, while also evolving them a little bit into something similar to the proto-Death/Thrash of SLAYER, alongside the atmospheric character of MORBID ANGEL and the melodically consonant riffing style of DEATH.
The most interesting aspect of this album is how much further Abbath’s guitar work has progressed within the passage of a single year. Though as a whole this album isn’t quite as ambitious and overwhelming as the last, the riffing here has matured nicely into a perfect blend of crunchy Thrash goodness and darkened Death Metal styled tremolo blurs. Likewise, the lead guitar work, which has increased to nearly twice as much in quantity, has taken on a character very similar to Demonaz’s somewhat Trey Azagthoth’s crisp, chorus heavy lead breaks as heard on “Blizzard Beasts”, which blend with the atmosphere of each song perfectly. Keyboards are employed sparingly, in fact with maybe the exception of “Pure Holocaust” this likely has the least amount of Ambient keyboard work of any of their albums, but when they enter they serve the arrangement quite well. In short, the guitar tone is crisp, the sound is heavily reminiscent of early 90s Thrash rather than today’s Modern Thrash sound, and the execution is basically flawless.
Each song has an individual charm that is distinct from the next, invoking a wide array of past classics and merging them with IMMORTAL’s own characteristic sound. The most overt example is the album’s opener “Triumph”, which starts like “Raining Blood” on steroids before morphing into a misty nebula of blast beats, streaming double bass, and aggravated riffs that bear some similarity to “Blizzard Beasts” mixed with DESTRUCTION and SODOM moments. “Against The Tide (In The Arctic World)” and the closer “Damned In Black” actually sound like an extreme Power Metal variant presented in a Blackened Death atmosphere, occasionally blasting away but also settling into this brilliant mid-tempo groove underneath a really catchy riff set. Occasionally the band seems to refer back to the chaotic past work of “Battles In The North”, particularly on the shorter “In Our Mystic Visions Blest”, which gets fast enough to rival CRYPTOPSY circa 1996, yet maintains the band’s melodic sensibilities and avoids pretentiously technical messes of atonal note sets.
Though this is by no means an inferior release by any standard, among the many certifiable classics that IMMORTAL has put out, this album is towards the bottom of the pecking order. It comes off as formulaic, and is pretty predictable when compared to the interesting mix of styles on “Blizzard Beasts” and the majestic qualities of “At The Heart Of Winter”. But if you found yourself enjoying the German Thrash additives that were found on both of those albums, this takes them to their logical conclusion and is a good pick up that showcases the band in an even more technically oriented capacity. Some bands put together entire albums for the sake of promoting one cause of another, but for this outfit, the music is its own cause, free of parochialism and universally accessible to anyone of any persuasion willing to give the extreme a try.
(Online February 16, 2009)