Review Summary: For the greater part, Thin Walls is a comforting, but unchallenging affair.
Hailing from Ghent, Belgium, Balthazar have earned their merits extensively touring through the majority of Western Europe, building a sizable fanbase among festival crowds and indie connoisseurs alike. Judging by the relatively eccentric debut Applause
and the mellow follow-up Rats
, the baroque-leaning setup of the band featuring violins did not seem like a foolproof formula for success. However, the five-piece succeeded by laying emphasis on their faux-funk leanings, using their rhythm section to give songs an engaging foundation upon which the band layered polyphonic vocals and melodic guitar and violin arrangements. In effect, they garnered a reputation for delivering shows that married energy with introspection, capitalizing on both the talents of the individual instrumentalists as well as the variety of moods presented in their discography.
Fast forward to 2014, the departure of old drummer Christophe Claeys led to a shift in dynamics right before work on their third full-length record commenced. Where before songs were driven by Simon Casier's pointed bass work and Claeys's sophisticated, yet elegant rhythms, the band now began to emphasize the vocal delivery of singers Maarten Devoldere and Jinte Deprez. Balthazar's new album Thin Walls
seems like the logical conclusion of that evolution in that the rest of the band confine themselves to providing a lush, relaxed backdrop – new drummer Michael Balcaen's economical accompaniment rarely surprises, whereas Patricia Vanneste's violin playing pops up on various occasions throughout the new record, albeit in a decidedly more bold fashion than before.
It is on the bookends where Thin Walls
comes closest to emulating the atmosphere of the band's last album – “Decency” and “True Love” introduce a solemn mood that is only rarely revisited over the course of the record, enveloping a modestly dramatic delivery in a baroque embodiment. Second single “Bunker” is a throwback to the dancier tracks of Rats
, while brittle “I Looked For You” showcases a quirky edginess that for the most part has been dormant since Applause
The middle section of the LP, in a deeply conflicting way, is where Thin Walls
distinguishes itself from past work, both in positive and negative ways: in one sense, the majority of the album musically explores themes of levity that feed off a calm, relaxed ambience. In that atmosphere, Devoldere and Deprez can tell sweet little tales that blossom unburdened by big statements, be they lyrical or musical. Vivid imagery (“When did all the streets lose their sound”) or storytelling (“I showed your picture to the man / working at the newspaper stand / been looking every waitress in the eye / I looked from the gutter right up to the sky”) both receive the necessary space to unfold.
At the same time though, zeroing in on the musical content of the more light-hearted songs, there are little attention-grabbing ideas to discover. From the perspective of Balthazar's first two records, where compelling songwriting or inventive instrumental parts were plenty, the discrepancy between the band's talent and how little of it surfaces on Thin Walls
makes for a vapid impression. As much as the more gloomy tracks hark back to the past glories of tracks like “Leipzig” and “Later”, they struggle to ignite the same excitement. In that sense, their new record proves to be a comforting, but unchallenging affair.