San Fermin: San Fermin

San Fermin's strange mix of genres and lyrical ideas makes for an enticing and fantastic listen.

San Fermin

San Fermin

Label: Downtown
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-11-11

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.