Helado Negro’s music straddles many different sounds, lands and feelings: it is bilingual and expressive, visual and auditory, autobiographical yet deeply fantastical. The brainchild of multi-instrumentalist and composer Roberto Carlos Lange, Helado Negro fully broke through with 2019's This Is How You Smile, a hushed, hummed and proud love letter to his upbringing and his family. The son of Ecuadorian immigrants, Lange incorporates the sounds and rhythms of the various places he’s lived (Brooklyn, a Texas arts community, his current home of Asheville, North Carolina) with those of his country and culture. Helado Negro’s music is simple yet sublime, and Lange continues to add to his expressive, striking oeuvre with his new album, PHASOR.
First single and album opener, “LFO (Lupe Finds Oliveros)” has a punky energy, all driving and crunchy. On the track, Lange imagines a meeting/celestial interaction/text convo between minimalist composer and sonic meditation practitioner Pauline Oliveros, and Lupe Lopez, a Mexican American woman who worked for Fender Guitar building amplifiers and guitars in the ‘50s. Her intricate work and deft touch have made her constructions incredibly sought after, and Lange finds beauty in her attention to detail and dedication to her craft. Images of selfies and gardens and a “Universo Instant zen” materialize in Spanish as the duo meets somewhere on the cosmic plane (after scrolling for a bit, of course).
On “I Just Want to Wake Up with You,” the rolling drums and clanging cymbals complement the crumbling digital love of Lange’s keyboard lines. His romantic pleas are sweet and sincere, capturing minute details of someone who’s in love but nervous about it, questioning and tentative. After cooing “My voice changes so you know,” the bridge happily plays with gender roles and expressions, with Lange singing “I'm just a girl, I'm just a boy / I'm just a man, I'm just a woman/ I just wanna wake up with you.”
On “Colores del Mar,” Lange’s multitracked voice floats over a skeletal backing track that also serves as the album’s most danceable and restless beat. On the track, Lange is tired and melancholy, singing, “I don't want you looking for me / I just want to disappear / And I don't want them to come see me / I’m just looking for your love.” It’s a desire for private escapism while simultaneously wanting to remain firmly planted in the present. These contradictions fuel Helado Negro’s music and add to the hesitant romanticism of PHASOR.
“Echo Tricks Me” and “Out There” are fragile, throbbing twins that are veritably Arthur Russell-esque in their execution. Much like Russell, Lange makes swooning, bubbling soundscapes that rely on hypnotic, repeating patterns of melody and rhythm, with lyrical fragments focussed on life and love. It’s fractured and determined, and flirts with the idea that what’s best for us can’t always be reconciled with what we want.
“Wish You Could Be Here” is the only real letdown, a derivative TV on the Radio castaway, whose more industrial sound feels coldly out of place. The track’s sequencing makes this especially apparent: it’s placed between the soft, plaintive strums of "Flores" and "Es Una Fantasia,” both of which recall images of smoky clubs and hot nights spent looking for love in all the wrong (or is that right?) places. The jazzy "Es Una Fantasia" is a particularly fitting closer, ending the night with a final stiff drink and a look down the bar for some semblance of affection, of embrace. Lange’s protagonists are not needy; they want connection, contact and grace. Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t, but that won’t stop them from chasing that elusive sense of connection.
Helado Negro’s music is the stuff of slightly stoned sunsets and stolen glances. Warm and meditative, PHASOR’s softness is its greatest strength, extolling the virtues of patience, silence, touch and exploration. It’s a wonderfully complex album belied by its gentle minimalism. Much like its mathematical title promises, you’ll undoubtedly get lost in PHASOR, even if you know you’ll eventually come right back around, pulsing back and forth, forever oscillating and pressing repeat.