Helado Negro: Phasor Album Review

February 9, 2024 - Music

In a short film about the making of Phasor, Roberto Carlos Lange’s eighth album as Helado Negro, the multi-instrumentalist songwriter says that “slow clouds and soft heat became symbols of long hikes through the mountains, and the noise for these songs.” His environmental inspiration ripples through nine beautiful tracks with a faint and visceral touch—like the effect of clean country air in your lungs that, almost without notice, gives you more energy than usual.

Lange’s specific temperament is a boon in a turbulent culture; his music reflects a gentle soul who encourages slowness and contemplation. But love has always been the message with Lange, an experimenter under the guise of a traditionalist, whose work in English and Español has snuck a folk songwriter’s sensibility into twinkling electronic cut-ups and field recordings. Phasor uses blank space a bit more liberally than 2021’s Far In, and here his expressions of affection feel as organic as the scenery he strives to capture. “And I’ll go outside, looking at the moon way too long,” he harmonizes with the pianist Opal Hoyt on “Best for You and Me,” his melancholic tone vague and aimed heavenward. On “I Just Want to Wake Up With You,” Lange captures one of the simplest moments of intimacy—a nice morning rise with your nearest and dearest—inside a cascade of rhythmic squelches.

The inciting moment for Phasor came in 2019 when Lange spent five hours with the Sal-Mar, a large-scale, one-of-a-kind synthesizer constructed in 1969 by the contemporary-classical composer Salvatore Martirano, who had the idea to use spare supercomputer parts to make an interactive “composing machine.” In Lange’s time interacting with the instrument at the University of Illinois, where it resides, he wrote sounds that bubble up in the crevices of Phasor, conveying ideas through simplicity and repetition whether lyrically or melodically. With the Sal-Mar’s sequencing employed in such a human and heartfelt album, it provokes some interesting thoughts about numbers, fractals, the nature of matter, the great interconnectivity of all beings, et cetera.

It seems significant that album opener, “LFO,” or Lupe Finds Oliveros, is a tribute to electronic composition icon Pauline Oliveros and Lupe Lopez, an original wiring technician for Fender amplifiers known in at least one corner of the internet as “the goddess of soldering.” The concept is literal—the reverb is centered alongside spacy sound snippets—but also posits music as a form of transcendental escape. “Un policía me pegó me dejó por muerto/Y le dije/¿Quien eres tú?” he sings stridently, and then: “¡Y Ya sé quien soy!” Who is this cop beating him down, he asks, but at least Lange knows his own self. He then escapes into what sounds like a chopped-up mariachi sample, light cacophony with the echoes of a phasor, the guitar pedal that’s best known as the dub reggae sound. (“I don’t own one,” he admitted in a recent bio, “but I did try to emulate that sound where I can on the record.”)

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