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Never exactly ones to struggle when it comes to producing atmosphere, Funeral have, since almost the very first note of their recorded output, swamped their music with a suffocating, despairing aura that captures the listener and steals them away from the world in which they live. However, 'Oratorium' represents a departure from the Norwegians, toning down the hopelessness of earlier works and working significant differences into the gothic doom of later albums like 'From These Wounds'. Kudos to Funeral though for changing their formula and coming up with something both stirring and original.
What will strike the listener as soon as 'Burning with Regret' drops open its mouth is that the scale has been increased almost exponentially in terms of both atmosphere and bombast, so that there isn't anything subtle left about the music, but the whole thing just steamrolls across the mind like a juggernaut out of hell. Everything is turned up to insane levels of intensity, from the force of nature vocals to the keyboards that exude terrible menace and earth-shaking power. There's a lot of organ used in songs like 'Break Me' that cause the song to remain at absolute crescendo for several minutes on end, especially as the vocals are being howled out like a thousand-strong curse hurled into the wind, so that we don't receive the melancholy of funeral doom but instead a kind of grandiose feeling of happening disaster (as opposed to imminent disaster). The image I get when listening to this album is of a supernatural historian standing on top of a cliff during a storm and commentating as the emperor's fleet is ransacked and driven asunder on the rocks, men drowning all around. Trust me when I say this is really dramatic.
Then again, that atmosphere with the quasi-choral voice of Sindre Nedland chanting oaths in deep register and thunderous organ and orchestral parts crashing overhead sounds a lot like church. Naturally, the whole thing is moving slowly - we expect sluggishness from Funeral - and the band have returned to the more gradual pace of their early days for much of this album, though it has a marching, ritual quality that also conjures images of a priest making his slow way to the altar while waving a censer, the music of revelation swelling up inside the tall building. If you've ever visited somewhere like the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (or any other huge church) and heard the organist really giving the keys a pounding at full volume, the effect is much the same as Funeral attain here, particularly on the first part of the album, where it feels like the sky is about to open and Christ's resurrection will commence even as you watch. The first three songs have the largest dose of this feeling, with more passionately driven lyrics that contain a powerful bitterness; the latter half of the album does continue the trend in places, though the final two tracks especially feel more like a lamenting goodbye than the struggle to cling on with nails and teeth.
As such, the density of the compositions wanes as 'Oratorium' goes on, leaving more room for the gradual melodies of the guitars to unfold and the songs to breathe more evenly. The interplay of guitars does leave a little to be desired at times, since they are either overshadowed by the orchestral parts or don't quite do enough to contrast the yawning declarations of Nedland's voice, which sometimes acts almost as a rhythm instrument, so deep and slow is it. There's a nice solo in 'Song of the Knell' and a great brooding riff that powers 'Hate' through its development, though the guitars are supporting more often than not and smothered at times. That said, if one wants an example of how to use keyboards in doom metal, I really can't think of anyone who has done it better, since the work by Kjetil Ottersen is practically flawless and certainly leaves the album with a much stronger character as a result.
For some older fans, the smaller focus on guitar work might be problematic, as might the change in atmosphere (though I would argue the mood is not dissimilar to Funeral's 00s output), but 'Oratorium' must be considered a success nonetheless. Not only does it make winning changes to the band's style, it also offers an enormously dramatic album that should captivate the listener almost from the first notes. There's not much more to ask than that.