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San Fermin's 'Belong' is Chamber Pop Excellence

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

As far as bands are concerned, San Fermin is arguably one of the most unintentionally musical projects on the active circuit. If you’re unfamiliar with the group (perhaps “collective” is a better term) San Fermin, you may find your subconscious asking “well, why are they famous?” If such is the case, I’ll bury the lede.

San Fermin is the vehicle for auteur composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone (an exceptional composer name, by the way) to get his proverbial chamber pop “rocks” off. While has Ludwig-Leone handled most to all of the composition and songwriting for San Fermin’s three LP releases, the recording process as a whole is by committee.

Vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate provide melodies and additional lyrical input, while John Brandon, Stephen Chen, Tyler McDiarmid, Rebekah Durham and Michael Hanf provide the grit and structure of San Fermin. Over the course of four years, San Fermin released two exceptional explorations of the baroque and chamber pop realms – San Fermin (2013) and Jackrabbit (2015) – which culminated in the production of the band’s newest full-length effort, Belong.

Between the three albums, Belong feels slightly more akin to the band's eponymous debut. The prevailing sensibilities of earnestness and simultaneous trepidation are as strong in Belong as any instance on San Fermin. Not to place Jackrabbit on the comparative backburner, but Belong serves as a current (in this instance meaning, “musically topical”) return to form.

There are classic tenants of San Fermin-dom such as visceral horn sections composed by Ludwig-Leone and performed by John Brandon (trumpet) and Stephen Chen (saxophone). If I may have a moment of personal expression and highlight one of my favorite instances of exceptional horn-i-ness (sorry) – “Better Form” has one of the strongest baritone sax basslines I can recall (I suppose that phrase isn’t uttered all that often in modern music criticism, but I digress).

Led by Allen Tate’s own baritone timbre, “Better Form” struts around like a modern wistful club anthem, but Ludwig-Leone’s brilliance places horns and strings where the familiar womps of a Deadmau5 or Flume might place some bright shimmery electronica. The song ebbs and flows with club sensibilities – drops, dramatic musical breaks – but maintains that strong baroque methodology San Fermin has nestled itself into. The song itself is one giant crescendo into the album’s second third, and by far and away one of it most dynamic.

Speaking of dynamism, such a descriptor is necessary when referencing any and all songs of which feature both vocalists Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye performing in unison. While both have their exceptional merits – Kaye being more airy and affirmative, Tate serving as the more despondent and doleful narrator – their “duets” offer up the purest sense of San Fermin. Title track “Belong” serves as an excellent example – Tate leads the song in his historically crestfallen croon, but Kaye and violinist Rebekah Durham provide a ray of light that veils Tate’s eventual growth into contentment.

While there may be no obvious stalwart track like “Sonsick” (off of San Fermin) or saccharine sweet single like “Emily” (off Jackrabbit), Belong as a whole stands to wind up being the most complete record in San Fermin’s early discography. Songs like “Dead” feel unique to current purviews amongst the new-age bourgeoisies and their individual (and potentially dwindling) freedoms as Kaye caterwauls in front of a frenzied composition only Ludwig-Leone could conceive.

Belong itself is a bit of a marvel, considering the extensive songlisting of San Fermin’s three record discography. Ludwig-Leone has composed 55 songs in the past four years. Mind you, that was composed, not “wrote.” The complex and concerted efforts of Ludwig-Leone have always benefitted San Fermin throughout the band’s existence, but never more so than on Belong. After half a decade of touring and playing alongside each other, Belong makes it apparent that Ludwig-Leone and his associates have reached their most intimate understanding of each other, culminating in a masterful crescendo.