After a brief hiatus, Balthazar front men Maarten Devoldere and Jinte Deprez have returned with their fourth studio release, Fever. Without reinventing the wheel, the Belgians have continued to polish and refine their indie-pop sound, bolstering their bass-led grooves with elements of dance, RnB and tropicana.
Having garnered notoriety among neighbouring European countries for their frenetic live performances, it wasn’t until six years after forming that Balthazar released their debut album in that of 2010’s hook-filled Applause. Over the course of two subsequent releases, their polyphonic harmonies and use of baroque-style strings and horns helped distinguish the group’s sophisticated take on indie-pop. Though 2015’s lacklustre Thin Walls LP reflected a band going through the motions, main songwriters Devoldere and Deprez have returned from time away working on respective solo projects with a feverish drive to push into the indie mainstream.
Title track “Fever” is well placed to open the record. A funk-ridden bassline harkens back to the Balthazar of old before melodic synth and waves of white noise usher in a new tribal, hypnotic groove. A steady kick amongst resourceful rim hits and shakers further imbue the backing vocals with a tribal ambience before sharp strings abrasively cut through the smooth mix. Building purposefully, aggressive guitar satisfies with a hook that’s equally as inviting as it is disconcerting. As one synth closes out the track, another opens “Changes”. Where previously the percussion was erratic, here a solid kick and hi hat pairing help contain the thumping bass before the radar-esque synth adds to some animated syncopated polyrhythms in the chorus. Just as the narrator dispels the need for change, so to do Balthazar appear staunch in their use of beautifully harmonised backing vocals.
Another dirty bassline introduces the soul-infused “Wrong Faces”, a song exemplary of their sonic range with trumpets used as the harmony and violins to sharpen melodies. Though sedate lead vocals fall flat, the soaring backing vocals, once again, offset and propel the chorus. “Watchu Doin’” slows things down with an RnB rhythm initially derived from staccato strings. Strongly worded lyrics fit the aesthetic as moral responsibility is harshly handed down; “It’s not up to me to let you know what is right and wrong”. However, the excessive space afforded between timbres throughout the track allays momentum and rhythm, making for disrupted listening.
“Phone Number” is a seductive, slinky track with delicate chorus progressions endowed with quivering violins. Equally arresting is the lonesome ukulele of the second verse, mirroring the narrator’s isolation after realising “I don’t know I ever wanted to let you go”. Second single “Entertainment” is a far punchier, pop-funk affair. Glockenspiel and whistle compliment the funky guitar tying each mischievous verse to its anthemic chorus. It’s a genuinely fun, catchy and danceable single, but these hallmarks do feel somewhat contrived to the point where it sounds like the soundtrack to a future Heineken commercial.
Where the Belgian boys’ newfound style truly succeeds is on the lo-fi, tropicana of “I’m Never Gonna Let You Down Again”. A lo-fi synth swell pairs with an undercut rhythm and series of irresistible falsetto lines that allow the chorus hook to bloom with a colour the prior track seemingly aspires to.
In another show of embracing the electronic, “Grapefruit” pairs a clubby drum machine against Casier’s organic bass. As is the case throughout the album, Balthazar show an excellent understanding in knowing when to push and pull. As violins add grandeur to the pre-chorus build, the chorus surprisingly reels back with composure. By contrast, Devoldere’s sleazy vocals will either arouse or repulse.
Though the record appears thematically limited to toxic relationships and superficiality, “Wrong Vibration” offers some broader introspection. With wistful melodies and synth strings akin to Funeral-era Arcade Fire, Devoldere warns of the suppressive nature of ethical dilemmas; “Don’t let your morality afflict your imagination girl, cos this ain’t the time or place for it”. Where thematically the album appears stunted, the soundscape soars, as the jazzy “Roller Coaster” proves yet again. With string sections foreshadowing an eastern tinge, sitars graciously step forth, flittering into and out of the mix much like the hook of the opening track.
Closer “You’re So Real” defies expectation yet again, this time with a psychedelic cut full of grainy drums and punchy guitars that dance with bended bass. The jazzy chorus progression forces Mild High Club to the memory, albeit in a standardised pop song structure that extends beyond their relatively minimalist offerings. The sax solo and quivering strings are the icing on the laid-back cake, perfectly surmising the band’s non-compliance with sticking to one style.
Fever undoubtedly represents a refreshing rebirth for Balthazar. Easily their most polished, well-structured and diverse record to date, it harnesses their strongest elements whilst adding contemporarily cool elements to assist with their push into the mainstream. Though a sophisticated indie-pop record, it’s one that, at times, tries too hard to be something it shouldn’t.
Fever is released Friday 25th January via Play It Again Sam