After composition student Ellis Ludwig-Leone graduated from Yale in 2011, instead of giving in to post-college feelings of aimlessness and "what next?" confusion, he set about to work on the epic master statement that he dubbed San Fermin. The self-titled debut is a massive collection of densely layered orchestral pop stuck between the technical tendencies of classically trained musicians and the summery electro-pop curiosity of chamber-leaning indie acts like Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and Sufjan Stevens. Ludwig-Leone acts in a "man behind the curtain" fashion for San Fermin, conducting more than a dozen musicians and vocalists through his songs and only contributing piano and keyboards himself. The vocals are handled by Allen Tate and the duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, also known as Lucius. Tate's dry baritone floats stoically over tracks like "Methuselah" and the bounding, eerie rocker "Torero," while Lucius' shimmery high-register unison vocals add brightness to the album's more pop-centric moments. Of those catchy standouts, "Sonsick" is the strongest, with a huge beat serving backup to huge melodic keyboards and a staggeringly triumphant chorus, boisterous with interlocking horn and vocal melody lines that recall the beautiful, melancholic marching feel of Beirut at their best. As the album winds into its final third, it takes a turn away from pop structures and into more droning compositions and drifty chamber pop experiments and interludes. Somewhere between Grizzly Bear's Yellow House era sounds and a tamer version of Scott Walker's later solo albums, San Fermin creates a layered and colorful sound that hides its subtle surprises in any of the dozens of secret compartments Ludwig-Leone built into his songs. With 17 incredibly complex songs clocking in at almost an hour, the San Fermin listening experience is a commitment, but one that rewards greatly. Getting to the end of the album, with all its obtuse hooks and unexpected turns, is surprisingly similar to the satisfaction of finishing a classic novel. While that feeling is probably part of what gave birth to the critics calling certain sects of indie rock "literary," San Fermin does something different with it, finding a fearless balance between the instant gratification of a good hook and the sometimes difficult results of an intentful vision.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas