Sometimes, a break is all you need. That’s the lesson to be learned from Fever, the fourth studio record by the Belgian indie rock outfit Balthazar. This quartet – initially a five-piece before the departure of its violin player Patricia Vanneste – had a productive first half of the 2010s, releasing three records: Applause (2010), Rats (2012), and Thin Walls (2015). Balthazar formed in 2004. Over the course of the six years between its founding and its full-length debut, the band worked the small-venue grind throughout Europe, diligently promoting its music and releasing small samples of what was to come on Applause.
The first three Balthazar records show promise, even brilliance: the head-bopping horn riff on “Fifteen Floors”, the mournful pseudo-choir vocals of “Lion’s Mouth (Daniel)”, and the smooth bassline of “Bunker” represent strong early-career highlights of this young band. None of these first three LPs broke any molds or achieved genre heights; at times, the music feels like an attempt to bring back a decade later what the Strokes did with Is This It?. Balthazar’s roots in the early-aughts rock revival meant that by the time 2010 rolled around, the music of Applause and its successors felt a little dated.
But following Thin Walls, the members of Balthazar did what so many bands need to do in order to revivify their sound: they took a step back. The two lead singers, Maarten Devoldere and Jinte Deprez, started new solo projects. Devoldere formed Warhaus, a smoky, noirish rock group whose aesthetic takes its cues from 1940s and 1950s gangster cinema and dime-store novels. Warhaus did a lot in a short amount of time, dropping the gutsily named We Fucked a Flame into Being in 2016, and its self-titled in 2017. Meanwhile, Deprez brandished the moniker J. Bernardt, whose lone album thus far – 2017’s Running Days – takes some of the arranging styles of Balthazar and incorporates more electronic instrumentation, a contrast from Warhaus’ use of conventional electric guitars and other acoustic instrumentation. Both Devoldere and Deprez sound renewed in these side projects. The question which immediately follows artistic detours such as these is simple: can paths down new artistic avenues carry their momentum back to the main road?
With Fever, Balthazar’s first collection of new music in four years, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Building upon the style of the first three Balthazar records while also drawing from the creative founts of Devoldere and Deprez’s solo work, Fever culminates everything successful about the band’s sound that’s thus far been established, while also embellishing lesser-explored facets of that sound, with great success. The title cut opens Fever with a brilliant showcase. Bassist Simon Casier leads the tune with a tension-filled bass riff, which then morphs into something close to disco as Michiel Balcaen’s strident bass drum joins it to lay down a perfect groove. When Devoldere and Deprez enter the mix, they sing in harmony; although Deprez takes the lead more often than not vocally, Devoldere’s dusky baritone, which makes the Warhaus project so distinctive, takes on a bigger role on Fever, and it’s an integral part of its appeal.
The Warhaus style also crops up on “Fever” in the bridge, when a somewhat sharp, wiry guitar sound that Devoldere explored on the cool Warhaus instrumental “Beaches”. The influence of J. Bernardt is equally felt on “Fever”, both in the twinkly keyboards at the beginning and the pure pop of the wordless chorus harmony. Balthazar doesn’t sound like a totally different band in these opening moments. But it does sound like a band whose time has finally come.
From there, the hits keep on coming. The low bass rumble on “Changes” adds a dark menace to the otherwise romantic chorus lyric: “I wanna love you like I’ve never loved one.” The jaunty, Black Keys-esque “Entertainment”, with its swanky horns and whistled refrain, stands out as Fever‘s purest pop number, made further distinct through the breakbeat style used by Balcaen. Deprez sells the sleazebag narrative of the sultry “I’m Never Gonna Let You Down Again”, in which he and Devoldere push their voices to falsetto in the chorus: “Girl, it’s not our time or place anymore / You just should know I’m never gonna let you down again.” Fever also gets a grand send-off in the form of “You’re So Real”, which wraps up the record in a cloud of saxophone and layered vocal harmonies.
In addition to a clearly renewed songwriting energy, Fever benefits from a choice that not too many rock bands in this day and age – to say nothing of those in classic rock canon – decide to make. Of the many things one could say about Fever, the truest of them all is that it is a bass player’s rock record. Casier plays his bass like a lead guitar in several cases, and he’s typically more in the tenor range of his instrument. On “Changes” and “Wrong Vibration” he fulfills the conventional bass role by providing a strong low end to anchor the music.
But Fever‘s finest tunes are those which place Casier at the forefront, and on no track is this truer than “Wrong Faces”, the album highlight. The bass is placed front and center, unaccompanied, and after Casier establishes the lead riff, the rest of the band joins in slowly, paradoxically serving a rhythmic role usually reserved for the bass. The spotlight moves away from Casier only at the end of the catchy chorus, when a dramatic violin figure punctuates the chorus before the segue back into the verses. When Casier takes this leading role on Fever, Balthazar does some of its best work – the spindly bassline of “Roller Coaster” is another case in point.
Because of its retro aesthetic and affinity for the traditional rock group lineup, Balthazar was bound to feel somewhat out of time because of the moment in musical history in which it arrived. While the flood of thinkpieces about the “death of the guitar” or even of rock ‘n’ roll in general are typically marked by overreaction, there is some truth to the fact that a rock band that looks like Balthazar is becoming an almost quaint aesthetic choice. But Fever is proof to all those who fret about rock’s demise that there’s plenty of creative gas left in the tank, particularly when rock musicians take the time to branch out and expand their sonic ranges. Balthazar have been a good rock band for a while, but with Fever it’s shown that it can become a great one.