As thoughts turn to end of year polls and we reflect on what has been a bumper year for new album releases, enter San Fermin right at the death with a self-titled debut that is a strong contender for album of the year. San Fermin is the brainchild of Brooklyn classical composer and bearer of the most grandiose name in pop, Ellis Ludwig-Leone – his virgin foray away from the austere world of his musical origins has resulted in one of the most fully realised and accomplished albums of the last 12 months.
San Fermin is a sprawling and ambitious 17 track opus that is generating the kind of internet buzz that no amount of record company PR can buy.
Think Sufjan Stevens circa his 'Illinoise' album crossed with 'Boxer' era The National and you get a pretty good idea of how San Fermin sound. Baroque strings, massed choral backing vocals and sharp blasts of horns and brass punctuate these beautifully rendered songs; this is classy, orchestral pop with slightly avant-garde leanings. A concept album of sorts, the record follows two characters voiced by the male and female singers as they progress through an “almost romance” as Ludwig-Leone himself describes it. The song-writing and arrangements betray Ludwig-Leone's classical background, but there is a strong melodic pop sensibility running throughout, never more evident than on the magnificent 'Sonsick'.
Melodramatic opener 'Renaissance!' is a striking introduction to this wonderful album while 'Casanova' starts off as a piano and strings led ballad before opening up into a thing of restrained beauty. 'Methuselah' is simply gorgeous, an acoustic based ballad that is one of the most affecting tracks on the record.
You could be forgiven for thinking that at seventeen songs and with a running time of just under an hour that this album might be in danger of outstaying its welcome. It manages to avoid that pitfall by the careful consideration given to the track sequencing, interspersing the main tracks with short instrumental pieces that act as more than mere ear candy – in some ways these tracks are the glue that bind these songs together.
The boy/girl mix on vocal duties serves the album well and keeps things interesting, even if Allen Tate does sound uncannily like The National's Matt Berninger at times. It is rare to hear a debut album as fully formed and ambitious as this; San Fermin is an audacious, at times blindingly brilliant collection of baroque pop and one of the must have albums of 2013.
Review by Paul Page