Instrumental doom, it’s everywhere! It wasn’t too long ago I was reviewing Glacier’s No Light Ever, an album that did a lot to pique my interest in the unique challenge of doom metal without vocals. After all, would Swallow the Sun be half as moving as they are without Mikko Kotamäki’s quiet crooning or bellows of rage? How many funeral doom bands thrive on the chilling output of their vocalists? Needless to say, the answer is “it depends.”1 To each their own, and every band is different, right? Today I’m honing in my focus directly on Gemini One, a German duo with their fourth EP, Per Aspera. Doom? Check. Vocals? No. An enjoyable listen? Read on.
The first thing any listener will notice about Per Aspera is the fairly minimalist style. This music is not the home of deafening chords designed to pummel you into the ground while the (absentee) vocalist roars pain and suffering in your face. “Primum Sanguis,” as an example, opens with melancholy plucking on an electric guitar before expanding into a strong combination of simple, lightly-distorted strumming and melancholy leads. The lack of distortion on Per Aspera, relative to most doom metal out there, is perhaps its most interesting dimension, one that separates it from expectation and contemporary both. The closest comparison I could give for the band’s sound would be to Leonov, who used a similarly gritty guitar tone in Wake to keep their atmospheric music grounded.
For most of the 31-minute runtime, Per Aspera is an EP I could best describe as “languished.” If this sounds like a bad thing, allow me to explain further. Per Aspera is a slow burn, in no rush to bring its ideas to fruition. The drumming is largely simplistic, the plucked leads are never rushed, and the tone is far more melancholic than upset or bereaved. Touches like the recorded voice samples that decorate “Ad Astra” and “CXII” add to the hazy feel of the atmosphere. If I close my eyes during the slow tremolo that embellishes “Ad Astra,” I feel as though I’m floating away into space; it’s a very peaceful way to end the album. By contrast, when Gemini One do pick up the pace, even a little bit, they produce some really cool moments. The concluding minutes of “Primum Sanguis” are stellar; every thrum of the guitar, each hit from the bass, and the rare strings that appear atop it all converge into really convincing doom. The garbled recordings2 on top give the song a fearful, desperate aura that makes it the absolute highlight of the spin.
The observant reader3 will have by now noticed that I’ve yet to really give an opinion on Per Aspera or Gemini One as a whole. That’s because this has been very difficult for me to judge, and I struggled a lot with assigning it a rating. The primary issue I have with the EP is that most of the half-hour runtime favors a slow, languished pace, which makes it easy for the mind to wander throughout. There are no hooks, memorable leads, or very many deeply affecting passages to make a serious impact. For the most part, this is very much an atmospheric style of doom metal, except that it doesn’t really sound like atmospheric doom. And yet, it achieves and maintains that atmosphere well, even if it’s not the most exciting metal I’ve heard this year. It doesn’t pull on the heartstrings, but I do feel something while I’m listening. In short, this is highly respectable potential that I find I like without really enjoying.
So, despite the time I’ve spent with Per Aspera, I remain on the fence about it, unable to fully commit to saying it is “good doom” or “bad doom”—though I certainly lean closer the former category. There’s no doubt in my mind that Per Aspera has a cool concept and good potential; I’d love to see it expanded on in the future. For now, I imagine I’ll only be revisiting this one occasionally, though I will be keeping an eye out for the next one.