All of which only makes Balance 016 more disappointing. The new mix sounds like a cheap sequel to At the Controls, similar in many respects, but lacking the je ne sais quoi that made the original so good. The style is still bleak and cinematic, and the track selection is as eclectic as ever. But the overall composition is seriously lacking in finesse; now Agoria's dark theatrics feel garish, and his mixing tends to be over-ambitious, too often disrupting the flow of the mix. The compilation is not without some redeeming moments. Even at his worst, Agoria is a very imaginative and technically skilled DJ. But rather than showcasing his unique talents and sensibilities, Balance 016 reveals his limitations.
In his review of At the Controls, Stephane Girard wrote that within every French electronic visionary lies a "closeted scruffy Goth," a claim that disc 1 of Balance 016 supports all too well. The mix takes a long time backing into a dreary, dirge-like vibe. We start off with four beatless tracks by Gregg Kowalsky, Alva Noto, DJ Koze and Mark Pritchard, none of which complement each other in any memorable way, before slowly drifting toward Manvoy de Saint Sadrill's "Soeheniono," the song that gives us our first bass kick, a solid four tracks in. For the next half hour or so, Agoria stays below 100 BPM as he trundles through a medley of sinister slow-burners. During this section, the whiff of goth goes far beyond subtle, with melodramatic selections like Emiliana Torini's "Gun" evoking images of a steam-punk Broadway musical.
Eventually Agoria changes tack completely, switching to a string of higher tempo minimal tunes. Things go pretty well for a while, assuming the operatic vocals of "Altre Voci" don't turn you off completely, and by the time we get to Glimpse's "Train in Austria Part 2," the mix is riding a decent momentum. But then Agoria gets ahead of himself, bringing the mix to an overblown climax that flows, confusingly, into a live recording of The Field's "Across the Ice," complete with audience noise and iffy acoustics. To his credit, Agoria recovers well enough, maneuvering through some shoegaze-inspired minimal tracks and a brief disco episode, courtesy of Jozif, Bibio and Trus'me's remix of LCD Soundsystem. Several vocal heavy tracks later, the disc concludes with a lame reprise of the Kowalsky and Alva Noto's ambient pieces.
Thankfully, "Rising Sine" (AKA Disc 2) isn't nearly as chaotic. In fact, the opening movement shows Agoria somewhere near the top of his game, beginning with an old prog-rock tune called "Loud Loud Loud" by the Greek band Aphrodite's Child. This dissolves very nicely into Taron Trekka's "Shiroi," a minimal house track whose vocal sample works perfectly with the previous tune's warm chords. This creates a moment of genuine DJ magic, as the two very different songs, recorded some four decades apart, play out elegantly in tandem for several minutes, creating what is undoubtedly Balance 016's finest moment. The mix stays funky and engaging for a while, coursing through fine selections by Francesco Tristano, Different Gear and DVS1.
But before long, Agoria veers into another tailspin, attempting once more to build a grandiose climax. It all beings somewhere around the twelfth track, when Avril's "French Kiss" blends with Gadi Mizrahi's "I Know," then transitions into "Tellehet," a discordant neo-classical piece by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, a showy move, and poorly executed to boot. This plays out for three irritatingly shrill minutes, until Agoria abruptly drops back into "French Kiss," creating a moment that's too jarring to be anything other than obnoxious.
This weird series of transitions points to Balance 016's overarching problem: Agoria's insistence on thinking outside the box, even when it doesn't lead to any particularly good ideas. On At the Controls, he maintained suspense through meticulous track selection, smooth transitions and one or two dazzling sleights of hand. (In other words, a traditional approach, done extremely well.) On Balance 016, he tries too hard to break the rules, and ends up sounding jumbled and ostentatious. Furthermore, there are times when Agoria's fancy footwork does nothing besides make the tracklist look more interesting. For instance, does it really help the mix that Disc 1 begins and ends with the same combination of ambient tracks? Or what about the second track of Disc 2, which apparently includes samples of "French Kiss" (which comes later) and "45:33 (Trus'me Remix)," which features on Disc 1? None of these attempts at recurring motifs are effective or even noticeable.
None of this is to say that bold ideas have no place in mix CDs. Some of the best mix CD's in recent memory have been quite experimental (in addition to Agoria's At the Controls, DJ/Rupture's Uproot and Optimo's Walkabout come to mind). But it seems that in trying so hard to push the envelope, Agoria lost sight of core fundamentals like careful track selection and the importance of maintaining a sense of flow. The resulting mix, though perhaps admirably audacious, is scarcely entertaining.