Famed 19th century US humourist Edgar Wilson Nye is supposedly quoted as saying "Wagner's music is better than it sounds". Perhaps this was an early incarnation of the oft wheeled-out cliche that a record "rewards repeat listens", a statement you can either take to mean that it's a grower, or alternatively that it's shorthand for "this a pile of knowingly clever muso nonsense that I don't really like but I'm pretending to 'get' it to be cool". I'm happy to state that Balthazar have here an album that rewards repeat listens, and that in this case, I mean it's a grower. Yeah this is a clever record alright, and yeah some of the lyrics are very well thought out, the arrangements often complex and it doesn't really settle into a rhythm. But, boy, is it good.
'The Oldest Of Sisters' opens proceedings with what could, if played on a harpsichord, happily pass itself of as an ancient Elizabethan piece, but that's before we progress through alt-rock, baroque and even jazz. They're throwing everything they've got at this one and it sounds far better now than it did upon release as a single in November, proving the "grower" theory. It's really quite stunning, the problem being that once the bar is set that high it's difficult to maintain. 'Sinking Ship' offers stiff competition both in the intricate arrangements and the lyrics ("from my pen you expected the sweet honey to drip, but the words come out like rats leaving a sinking ship, yeah look at them run"). The standard is kept high on the agitated 'Later', a song which showcases the consistently inventive drumming.
Although 'Rats' may be lacking any radio-friendly unit shifters, it's built from impressive stuff, and were they not Belgian this would be a shoe-in for a Mercury nomination, only for all the right reasons. They play about with downbeat chamber-pop on 'Joker's Son' and the slightly melodramatic 'The Man Who Owns The Place', and 'Do Not Claim Them Anymore' shows an altogether different sound. If you're looking for instant gratification you may have to grin and bear it through the first few plays of 'Lion's Mouth (Daniel)', 'Listen Up' and 'Any Suggestion' though. Balthazar are clever, they are putting in the effort to make themselves superior, whether they feel they are or not isn't for us to say, but in 'Rats' they've made a grand musical statement, and if it fails to strike a chord upon first listen then bear with it. It's better than it sounds.