Two years ago, the Johnny Jewel-led band Symmetry released Themes for an imaginary film. Speculation was that Jewel had originally been asked to make the score for Nicolas Refn’s masterful Drive, and it was easy to hear why. Themes had an ‘80s-styled sound filled with pulsating synth lines and Eurythmics-esque drum machines, but beyond that Themes nearly fit the label of concept album. Night drives and neon lights all came to mind while listening, even if story was only hinted at. Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s San Fermin lacks in spacey synths and drum machines but contains a similar story path to that of Symmetry’s release. The self-titled debut’s score to a not yet released play or musical is laid out in fantastic fashion. Masterfully orchestrated, Sam Fermin is a strange wonder preforming alchemy with a handful of genres.
Yale graduate Ludwig-Leone shirks the usual role of front man, instead acting as the conductor, fleshing out brilliant compositions and performing piano. For the recording of San Fermin, Ludwig-Leone surrounded himself with an excellent group of singers. Baritone Allen Tate is San Fermin’s most immediate draw. The National fans will be drooling over desperate rocker “Torero” not just for its “Conversation 16”-like structure but for Tate’s golden voice. Tate’s truly great moments come when his voice rises above his normal bass range and into more strained notes. Album opener “Renaissance!” has Tate’s voice slowly rising as the cinematic ending comes closer and closer. Tate, amid well-crafted harmonies that melt into the strings, sings “Please come wake me up / I’m waiting for your love” in his most impassioned tone.
Tate might be the first thing you notice, but Ludwig-Leone smartly pairs Tate’s low register with Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Brooklyn’s Lucius. “Crueler kind” has an upbeat jazz feel, while Wolfe and Laessig sing in beautiful harmony about a “crueler kind of punishment.” The duality between music and lyrical content is a constant theme and one that Ludwig-Leone crafted meticulously. Lead single “Sonsick” might be San Fermin at its most catchy and lovely, but Ludwig-Leone describes it as “a panic attack disguised as a birthday party.” Ludwig-Leone isn’t just explaining “Sonsick”, he’s revealing how San Fermin’s more poppy moments work. When Wolfe and Laessig are in charge of vocal duties, San Fermin is reminiscent of St. Vincent, with poisonous undertones lying just beneath extremely pretty melodies.
Ludwig-Leone’s lyrics center around love, death, dreams, and aging but there’s scholarly thought put into these themes. It’s never fully revealed if Tate is playing multiple characters or not, but his soliloquy in “Casanova” achingly portrays a tired Don Juan who seems ready to settle down but is held back by the past. When Wolfe and Laessig join Tate to sing the chorus of “I can’t fall asleep in your arms,” it cuts painfully deep. Tate’s one time Romeo asks his current lover to tell him a story while he tries to mend the wounds. Its striking how beautiful and sorrowful it is.
The rather mysterious story is further expanded by lush instrumental breaks. “Lament for V.G.” is a sweeping and somber piece of chamber music and “At Sea” has Ludwig-Leone creating dark waves with his piano. These are pieces that seem fantastically antique but their brothers are stranger suites. The twitching “At Night, True Love” evokes a walk through a very odd city at midnight. Random pieces of music are thrown down, and saxophones, sections of an aria, a waning violin, and piano are all smashed together. “True Love, Asleep” has the love interest experiencing a rather restless R.E.M. cycle to say the least. The “At Night” songs are complemented with longer tracks “The Count” and “In Waiting”. Our poor count might be on the verge of a mental breakdown as mesmerizing vocal lines open the song, only for a jarring saxophone surrounded by the muffled sounds of laughter, crying, and moaning to interject. Thanks to vocals akin to Greek sirens and just the right amount of dissonance, “In Waiting” has enough sexual tension to make the jaded lover in “Casanova” reconsider his current outlook.
Ludwig-Leone’s work as maestro makes the album. Even the dusty ballad “Methuselah”, the album’s simplest song, has slight flurries of classical tinged motifs that never quite go where you think they will. The second to last track, “Daedalus (what we have)”, is in the vein of Sufjan Stevens and serves as the album’s climatic ending. Still, San Fermin’s opening track might be its finest moment in every area. Ludwig-Leone’s carefully built sound matches Tate’s lines of “There’s a mob at the door / I hear them calling for my head / …I’m still dreaming magnificent things.” ”Renaissance!” illustrates in miniature what makes this project so excellent. It’s brimming with spectacular moments and paints grand tales that demand close inspection. When Tate is musing about “dreaming magnificent things”, one must wonder if he’s just dreaming of San Fermin.