I encountered Brooklyn based San Fermin due to a suggestion of them as chamber pop band of note. While the suggestion was wrong in that there's really far too much going on under the surface of San Fermin for them to really qualify as chamber pop, I suppose it's a fitting moniker for the brainchild of composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone. In what is rapidly becoming a trend, Ludwig-Leone emigrated to Canada in a fit of post-grad "What now?" shock where he started working on what would become San Fermin. San Fermin and the self-titled album are rare in that the narrative voice isn't in the spotlight. Ludwig-Leone has surrounded himself with a group of consummate musicians and trusted them to interpret his vision - a page right out of the classical music handbook. But San Fermin isn't a contemporary classical music ensemble by any means. Ludwig-Leone's chosen voice (at least on parts of the debut record) is that of modern indie pop.
A concept album, San Fermin tells the story of two protagonists experiencing a crisis not unlike the composer/songwriter's own. "Renaissance!" starts the album with a sense of drama and intrigue and epic grandeur and establishes the album's ambitiousness right off the bat. The album balances the two characters by giving them dramatically different sounds - the male narrated by the Allen Tate's booming baritone and voiced by pervasive melancholic folk while the lady's role is overtaken by the female duo at the forefront of fellow Brooklyn band Lucius and features moments of lush, resplendent pop mastery. After establishing the two separately in "Renaissance!" and "Crueler Kind", the album shifts between the two in track-by-track call and response - a dialogue extended over the course of a little less than an hour.
While adopting this kind of reactionary songwriting format, Ludwig-Leone also makes extensive use of musical interludes of his compositions which while very good technically and aurally, don't really do much in service of his established narrative choice. In a way, they're the composer's attempt to make his own voice heard after relegating those duties to others.
San Fermin is an ambitious album, of that there is no question. It's also a very good album - but it's not an album free from weaknesses. San Fermin's weakness lies in its ability to more seemlessly integrate its various influences. It's a case of many plates spinning in the air that actually distract from a rather interesting concept and even more interesting bit of absolutely gorgeous musical moments. It's clear and obvious strengths are in those moments Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe make their presences known and are given the focus ("Crueler Kind", "Sonsick" "The Count", "Oh, Darling"). Non-coincidentally these are moments when the album is at it's poppiest, it's most accessible; it's most fluid and forward moving. Allen Tate's voice is an anchor - firmly grounding everything but so rarely given to the vibrant flights of fancy of Laessig and Wolfe. The exception to this being when their union in "Bar" and triumphant sun-speckled "Daedalus (What We Have)".
There's moments on the album that feel truly earned due to the rotating narration and staggered pacing - "Oh, Darling" is probably the true moment where the female protagonist doesn't shine like a beacon of light - draped in dazzling, catchy pop melodies and boundless confidence. "Oh, darling, I've been so miserable/I can't describe" and the male rouses from his wallowing and offers comfort, countering "When you're off alone and your heart is gone to sea, leave your lonely here with me". For all the bells and whistles afforded to San Fermin from it's orchestral accompaniment and reliance on moments of lush majesty - the most moving moment is its most lyrically focused; it's most simple and its most bare.
While "Daedalus (What We Have)" provides the male's bookend moment of transformation - the actual moment not occurring lyrically but compositionally. The storm clouds disperse and Allen Tate's vocals glisten in bright moments of musical catharsis. It's a testament to Ludwig-Leone's skills that while having a considerable amount of plot going on that the defining factor in character growth lies in the music.
What keeps San Fermin from being a truly, truly great record in terms of cohesion and it being the type of album you want to listen to in full over and over again lies in a perceived inability to unite Ludwig-Leone the talented composer and Ludwig-Leone the incredibly gifted pop songsmith. When the lines between these two sides of the creative coin marry, the results are sure to be astounding. San Fermin seems a bit disjointed, with parts that either seem a bit superfluous or dragging. Regardless, San Fermin is an excellent and intriguing debut with its fair share of album highlights. It's a richly engaging listen with a slew of rewards that reveal themselves on each subsequent listen if you're diligent enough to stick around.