The lines between genres are perpetually blurred. This is probably for the best: attempts to label music are, often as not, an exercise in futility. Fully aware of this, I still found myself trying to affix a label to San Fermin (2013), the debut project from composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone. It’s more complex than much so-called progressive rock – after all, Ludwig-Leone earned a music degree from Yale. But apart from shifting time signatures and complex song structures, it eschews most of prog’s sonic and compositional conventions. Chamber pop might be more accurate—San Fermin features an ensemble of almost two dozen—but Ludwig-Leone places heavy emphasis on the “chamber” half of that equation, borrowing as much from twentieth century art music as from Love or Sufjan Stevens. In many ways the seemingly imprecise “art rock” might actually be the best descriptor of all. Because this is rock music as art, an album conceived as a totality in an age of iTunes singles and YouTube sensations.
Composed during a six-week retreat at the Banff Center in Canada, San Fermin centers around the complicated romance between a male narrator (Allen Tate) and his female counterpart (Lucius’s Jess Wolfe or Holly Laessig, depending on the song). It’s not entirely a coincidence that the album’s superficially “sunniest” moments tend to feature the ladies on vocals; while Tate has been compared to Matt Berninger (The National), his vocals are more reminiscent of Neil Hannon or Scott Walker. Certainly, the songs on which he features prominently tend toward Walker’s morose orchestral pop, both in sound and in spirit (“Renaissance!” “Methuselah”), whereas Wolfe and Laessig tend to handle the poppier side of things (“Crueler Kind,” “Sonsick”). When the two personae interact within the same song, as on “Bar” or “Daedalus (What We Have),” San Fermin achieves a remarkable balance between light and dark, framed by arty arrangements that evoke Illinois at its most ornate.
Often, when rock artists attempt to write classical music, it ends up sounding labored. Ludwig-Leone’s foray in the opposite direction isn’t completely immune from stiltedness – for instance, the chamber orchestra interludes tend to bog down, even as they help San Fermin cohere from a mere collection of songs into a larger work. But on the whole, San Fermin’s is the kind of line-blurring that doesn’t make you quite as uncomfortable as Robin Thicke’s, a cross-genre opus that works equally well as rock and as art music – hence “art rock.”
- San Fermin Self Titled (opinionleak.wordpress.com)
- San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Five Essential Albums (wfuv.org)
- San Fermin: Dreamed-Up Chamber Pop (soundcheck.wnyc.com)
- The Sylistic Wildness of San Fermin (Huffington Post)
- [INTRODUCING] San Fermin (dontneednomelody.com)
- San Fermin Look for Common Ground on ‘Oh Darling’ (bornrockaholic.wordpress.com)
- Upcoming Shows (sanferminband.wordrpess.com)