Roberto Carlos Lange is a prolific artist with many tags: installation artist, producer, singer-songwriter, and for 15-plus years he’s been making music under the Helado Negro moniker. Beginning his artistic trajectory with Asthmatic Kitten (the Sufjan Stevens’ founded record label), Lange moved on to Brooklyn’s independent, experimental RVNG Intl. before landing a deal with legendary British label 4AD for 2021’s Far In and his latest effort, Phasor.
Lange, of Ecuadorian descent, grew up in the suburbs of Florida and spent 20 years in Brooklyn before briefly relocating to Texas during the pandemic. He has now set up shop in Asheville, North Carolina. These locations’ rich cultural, ancestral, and musical history flows in Lange’s work. Helado Negro’s music has moved progressively, too, turning more overtly personal and intimate, delving with childhood, pain, and joy in equal measure while retaining his unmistakable dance beat. This development crystalized and peaked on his 2019 breakthrough, This Is How I See You Smile, and was further meditated upon on the pandemic-follow-up Far In.
Throughout these phases, shifts, and relocations, Lange’s relationship with visual artist/jewelry maker Kristi Sword, now his wife, has been an important constant. Helado Negro’s new album, Phasor, deals with all the familiar baggage, but the cohesive force of this relationship is its center of orbit.
Lange has a Computer Art and Animation degree from Savannah College of Art and has worked extensively with video, sculpture, sound, and performance before gripping the mic himself. This technical background colors how Lange listens to and processes the world in his work. It also explains why the technical complexity of his productions sounds so effortless. Helado Negro albums are rich in collaboration, but Lange is the primary operator, handling every instrument, twisting each sound knob, and that makes the vision and path very clear. However, holding the reins and knowing how to do it is not necessarily conducive to new creative directions.
Looking for inspiration and new paths, Lange took to the past and visited the SAL-MAR Construction Synthesizer, located at the University of Illinois and Center of American Music Department. SAL MAR is the world’s first music synthesis engine, conceived by Salvatore Martriano in the early 1970s. It’s both analog and digital, enabling composition in real time. The machine can be automated or manually operated, highlighting the human/machine interaction. This means you can steer and direct the machine, but you can’t predict where this will take the music, Salvatore said about his creation. Lange spent a day with SAL (not HAL) and created hours’ worth of material; that wealth of sounds is the foundation for Phasor.
For all the studio trickery and mensh/machine merging, it’s Lange’s voice that carries the show entirely. His voice and singing are a mixture of delicate, snowflake-like frailty with a carefree, vibrant, and contagious energy. Helado Negro sings and accentuates words differently, slightly off, so their (wordy) meaning won’t stick to the listener. His delivery of the song is everything as it distributes the weighty material present here on Phasor, as it is on all of his albums: themes of loss, pain, disruptive and pivotal childhood moments, and by this delivery, he takes their power away, make them a lot less potent, and harm, less. On Phasor, we are still orbiting and navigating Lange’s particular dreamy sound space with the familiar debris, but this time, there is a stronger emphasis on the power of relational love, as on “Flores”: I will rest my voice in your arms / Escape my only pain / I follow your echo (translated from Spanish).
Phasor opens and ends strongly, with three songs that bookend the record at either end. However, the middle part is a trio of songs that don’t lead anywhere. Here, the mood, melody, and instrumentation keep repeating themselves, and even the lyrics mirror this repetition, as on “Colores del Mar” and “Echo Tricks Me”, while “Out There” revels in a Stereolab-tinged soundscape that’s equally repetitive. Still, it’s a place you’d like to rest in for a while. They don’t work well as memorable songs, but the SAL-produced sounds possess a mesmerizing quality nonetheless. These songs are all about the process of getting there, of moving on.
“Flores” follows and leaves this intermediate state created by the past three songs. The instrumental ending of this song feels like Lange lets go of a boat so the current can take it to where it’s supposed to be—a pure, satisfactory sensation. “Wish You Could Be Here” sounds like the end of this journey, promising to end on a high. It’s a Helado Negro classic, an upbeat yet mellow club-banger with longing, melancholy lyrics, producing all smiles.
But Phasor ends on a different and fitting, oscillating note. “Es Una Fantasía” is a Spanish-sung dreamlike lullaby with a hip-hop-sample-worthy beat. Nearing the end, the hi-hat whips up the tempo while Lange simultaneously languidly strums his guitar. The two of them pull in opposite directions until the hi-hat abruptly ceases, and the song comes to a tranquil end. It’s a song that encapsulates the duality of the album well: a song that wakes you up and clears your mind, and puts you at ease.
There is an openness to Helado Negro’s world. Lange doesn’t lead us down a particular path or any fixed direction, offer meaning, or dictate emotional response. However painful or emotional a line can be, Lange’s singing immediately moves you beyond and puts you in a different space. It’s quite the magic trick. Lange enables the path but does not take it. It’s for us to decide.
Phasor celebrates duality. Its title refers to the oscillating pattern of SAL MAR, the back-and-forth, up-and-down rhythmic regularities of its compositions. But more than anything, it celebrates the oscillating and pendulum forces of the relationship – of (that) movement that’s only possible when you are with someone else.