Like brooding, introverted frontmen Matt Berninger of the National or even Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone doesn’t need to do much grab hold of your attention. On the band’s self-titled debut album, he quietly rumbles on piano while his group delivers chilling tunes about mythic Bible characters (“Methuselah”), moody lovers (“Casanova”) and other troubled souls.
So, yeah, San Fermin is by no means a cheery record. The group’s mammoth 17-track set is like the evil step-twin of Sufjan Stevens (or a 19th-century carnival freak show) with gothic-steeped orchestral numbers and plugged-in, art-damaged rock. There are also curious little classical music-inspired sketches: “At Sea” nods to Gershwin’s Preludes, while the undulating rhythms of “At Night, True Love” could be mistaken for something by contemporary composer John Adams. That influence makes sense: Ludwig-Leone, a Yale graduate, has assisted composer Nico Muhly in the past.
San Fermin isn’t all Ludwig-Leone’s show, however. The record gives shine to singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, also of the band Lucius, who deliver the song’s most vibrant cuts, while singer Allen Tate croons the darker ones. “Crueler Kind” and “Sonsick” mine a similar art-rock terrain as the Dirty Projectors. There are rattling shifts in tempo, bold brass riffs and their soaring, double-helix harmonies. Those shifts in mood — Tate’s misty, sepia-toned ruminations and the girls’ colorful, relatively upbeat energy — are a bit jarring, but when their artistic sensibilities perfectly meld, as on the stunning, eerie “The Count,” the result is nothing short of magical.