Balthazar are a band whose time has come. Although they’ve been active since the mid-2000s, the group’s rise has been slow, only entering the official record with their debut LP Applause in 2010. Since then, Balthazar added three other albums to their discography, each improving upon the one before it: Rats (2012), Thin Walls (2015), and Fever (2019), the latter one of the finest rock albums of the 2010s. Led by co-vocalists Maarten Devoldere and Jinte Deprez, the band evolved from a rock sound indebted to the early aughts’ “rock revival” into something still rooted in rock vernacular but inclined to atypical arrangements and instrumentation.
Fever’s innovation was to place the bass front and center; on tracks like “Wrong Faces” and “You’re So Real”, the guitar plays almost a peripheral role, with bassist Simon Casier providing both the lead riff and the rhythmic anchor. Tastefully placed strings and horns on “Grapefruit” and “Entertainment” add sophistication and depth to what could have been straightforward rock jams in lesser hands. At the time, Fever seemed like a peak. But with Sand, Balthazar’s fifth studio outing, these Belgians remain at that peak, all the while pivoting their sound in a whole new direction.
If Sand has a visual equivalent, it’s the interiors of a jazz club from a 1960s European noir, perhaps something out of a Jean-Pierre Melville policier. The rousing closing song “Powerless”, with its somber piano motif and cries of “power!” in the chorus, sounds like a jazz standard that’s been around for decades, performed and recorded dozens of times over. Devoldere’s low croon on “You Won’t Come Around” conjures an image of a lounge singer slumped over his microphone, a drink in hand, mumbling out his heart’s inner workings.
The melancholy saxophone in the bridge and outro of “Leaving Antwerp” feels designed to play atop a montage of an individual walking through the shadowy streets of the eponymous city as they reflect on their misfortunes. And then there’s the album highlight “Hourglass”, whose loopy bass riff, brass arrangements, and exuberant bridge refrain (“I don’t wanna wait!”) could serve as the perfect kickoff to a black-and-white cocktail party.
While not at a total remove from the rock music that’s been Balthazar’s signature up to this point, Sand anchors itself more in lounge pop and jazz, both of which have appeared at times in the band’s music before but have never been foregrounded like they are here. Fever’s centerpiece, “I’m Never Gonna Let You Down Again”, with its sad-sack, self-deprecating narrator and sensual mood, gestures to a similar perspective presented in “Leaving Antwerp”. The narrator opines in the chorus, accented by synths like those on “Let You Down Again”: “Once I had a choice to become better / One I couldn’t make / Before I walked away.” The clipped bassline and clean electric guitar tone on the joyous “Moment” – a pop hit in the waits if Balthazar’s ever written one – are the optimistic side of the coin whose opposite is the glum “Bunker” from Thin Walls, to date one of the group’s most popular songs. Sand threads a difficult needle, balancing the sound for which Balthazar are already known with the new genre explorations that make this album feel like turning a new page.
Yet as vibrant as Sand is, one cannot help but wonder what it would have sounded like barring the limitations that Balthazar faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many musicians, Devoldere, Deprez, Casier, Michiel Balacaen (drums), and Tijs Delbeke (keys, trombone, strings) had to take a remote approach to writing and recording in 2020, which resulted in a production that lacks the live-wire vibes of Fever. Most notably, Balacae’s presence feels diminished. On “You Won’t Come Around,” the percussion isn’t even organic, with an electronic drum track serving as the rhythmic foundation for the ballad. The song still proves compelling, particularly as it reaches its string-washed crescendo, but the drum track comes across as functional, which stands out all the more for the dreaminess of the song itself. The same holds for the catchy “Passing Through”, which could have benefited from non-electric percussion in its quiet first verses.
Of course, such counterfactuals are in some sense unprovable. Had Balthazar the capacity for a full studio recording session with all players present, these songs may have been (and probably would have been) written differently right from the outset. And in the live shows that will eventually come, it’s not difficult to imagine any of the more sparsely arranged tracks getting embellished with the full benefit of the performance setting. But like so many things related to the COVID pandemic’s effects on the arts, it’s hard not to lament what could have been, especially in Balthazar’s case, as the band otherwise fires on all cylinders throughout this record.
Still, in times like these, with so much uncertain, it is better to be grateful for superb music when it graces our ears, rather than wonder how it might have turned out in a different world. For Balthazar to put out a set of songs as confident and exhilarating as these at any given time would have been a remarkable feat; to have done so during a global pandemic makes Sand all the more special. “Anytime / Anyhow / I’m living for this moment,” Devoldere and Deprez sing in harmony on “Moment.” That doesn’t just sound like a good hook for a pop song. It sounds like the truth.