Helado Negro Review “This Is How You Smile” Is A Journey As If In A Dream

Helado Negro performing music such as "This Is How You Smile".
CC BY by Drew Coffman

HELADO NEGRO
A Review of “This Is How You Smile”
(RVNG Intl.)

Helado Negro, the musical project of Roberto Carlos Lange, unravels the threads of Lange’s identity in a cloud of electro-anchored Tropicalia. His Ecuador/Miami/New York ties create a framework for This Is How You Smile, which Lange describes as, “the soundtrack of a person approaching you, slowly, for 40 minutes.” The dream-like journey magnifies scars and snapshots, uncovers auras, affirms familial bonds, and validates existence as a Latinx in America. “Brown won’t go/Brown just glows,” he sings on the flickering, tender embrace of ambient opener “Please Won’t Please.” Lange’s “Young, Latin, and Proud” message from his 2016 Helado Negro offering, Private Energy, is carried further into this new release, helping to reveal the hazy figure as Lange himself. 4/5

This Is How You Smile is out March 8, 2019

By Erin Wolf

This piece originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. via via bust.com


Introducing the Music of Helado Negro

Roberto Carlos Lange is a crosser of distances – between selves, countries and memories. Working under the name Helado Negro, the Ecuadorian-American producer built his sound on ambient electronics, Latin American rhythms and instrumentation that allows each element to bounce and reverberate, remembering the sound as it happens. On 2016’s Private Energy, Lange pointed this sound into a mission statement (and the art installation he calls “tinsel mammals”). Whether in the quiet anthemic affirmation of “Young, Latin & Proud” or the private benediction of “It’s My Brown Skin,” Lange has traveled far in his journey to the hyperpersonal.

Helado Negro performs.
CC BY by Drew Coffman

Helado Negro began once Lange decided to use his voice as a primary instrument. A deep, quavering tenor that floats between romantic, soothing, and mournful, his voice remains the center around which the project rotates. He sings primarily in Spanish, though he began writing lyrics in English for 2013’s Invisible Life – not out of any kind of accommodation for English-speaking audiences, but rather to branch out with his collaborators and continue pushing himself further. Over time, Helado Negro has grown to encompass other performance art and electronic music impulses. Songs on Invisible Life and 2011’s Canta Lechuza draw from Lange’s early beat experiments as Epstein, while some of the more urbane, drifting moments on 2014’s Double Youth and Private Energy recall Ombre, his airy collaborative project with Barwick.

Helado Negro = Dual Identity

Lange’s dual identity has been a thematic through line in his music dating back to Helado Negro’s debut album, 2009’s Awe Owe, whose unruffled Spanish-language songs subtly implied the album’s genesis as a negotiation of growing up in the States but within a Latin American community. Some songs on Invisible Life zeroed in on a similar idea: The video for “Dance Ghost” was shot in his hometown of Miami – “the capital of Latin America,” as he called it – and used the lyrics “There’s no one home / Just the ghosts who dance alone” to tell a story about illegal immigrants who work during the day but don’t go out at night for fear of deportation.

This Is How You Smile

Clarity and experience make for a powerful mixture. Indeed, the template for This Is How You Smile is the legendary “conscious soul” albums of the 70s, the masterpieces of urban portraiture that Mayfield, Gaye, and Wonder crafted in that decade. In this album, we get Helado Negro’s take on that. Which means that instead of “Tu abuela es young, Latin & proud,” we hear “I see you in my hands everyday” or “Brown don’t go/ Brown just glow,” the latter as empowering proclamations of pride in one’s inheritance, if a smidgen less literal. It makes perfect sense for Lange’s most topical album to also be his most hazy, oblique, and poetic; touching and personal but still firm and combative, tender and reflective yet never melancholic.

“Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin”

But Private Energy centers Lange’s identity in candid, awe-inspiring terms for the first time in the Helado Negro discography. The two songs that most explicitly reference his personhood – “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin” – aren’t so much appraisals as they are salves, ways of passing along a message of hopefulness and positivity to those who may need it most in the same way he did. Lange wrote most of the album in 2014, when he was feeling exhausted by a grueling summer of police shootings, protests, and social upheaval that motivated him to direct his impulses inward.

Spanning Distances Between Selves, Countries and Memories

Helado Negro on keyboards.
CC BY by Drew Coffman

Roberto Carlos Lange is a crosser of distances – between selves, countries and memories. Working under the name Helado Negro, the Ecuadorian-American producer built his sound on ambient electronics, Latin American rhythms and instrumentation that allows each element to bounce and reverberate, remembering the sound as it happens. On 2016’s Private Energy, Lange pointed this sound into a mission statement (and the art installation he calls “tinsel mammals”). Whether in the quiet anthemic affirmation of “Young, Latin & Proud” or the private benediction of “It’s My Brown Skin,” Lange has traveled far in his journey to the hyperpersonal.

The album harkens back to Helado Negro’s Private Energy work and remains consistently ethereal and aurally pleasing. Lange’s song writing on the song “Fantasma Vaga” is some of his best work yet, utilizing his calming voice and young Latin pride with vocals in Spanish.

The Helado Negro “Soundscape”

The soundscape of Helado Negro’s music is the perfect backdrop for his poetic lyrics that take on themes of identity from an immigrant perspective. To me, these themes often sound like metaphors for a deeper existential take on the individual and society.

Roberto Lange, as a multifaceted creator, uses various forms of conceptual expression; he also has a profound affinity and participation in art as a visual artist working with mediums such as video, sound and performance. Helado Negro, beyond the persona, serves as a creative space that encourages a cohesive collision of art and music. As a result, Lange’s career has carefully interweaved each aspect in an equally intense manner.

Conclusion

Clarity and experience make for a powerful mixture. Indeed, the template for This Is How You Smile is the legendary “conscious soul” albums of the 70s, the masterpieces of urban portraiture that Mayfield, Gaye, and Wonder crafted in that decade. In this album, we get Helado Negro’s take on that. Which means that instead of “Tu abuela es young, Latin & proud,” we hear “I see you in my hands everyday” or “Brown don’t go/ Brown just glow,” the latter as empowering proclamations of pride in one’s inheritance, if a smidgen less literal. It makes perfect sense for Lange’s most topical album to also be his most hazy, oblique, and poetic; touching and personal but still firm and combative, tender and reflective yet never melancholic.

Back in the Americas, though not my place of birth, I continue to listen to Helado Negro’s music. The lyrics turned opaque as enunciation lost precedence to mood. In parallel, Roberto Carlos Lange built himself a home that could fit Ecuador and the U.S. in their many variations, real and imagined, inherited and earned. An ever-growing collection of scraps, mementos, experiments, and curios, the subterranean rumblings of Lange’s beguiling discourse. Of course, such neatly arranged compartments were no match for reality.


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