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Helado Negro: Invisible Life

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It’s tempting to claim that the Helado Negro of 2009’s Awe Owe is unrecognizable in the Helado Negro of Invisible Life. The former was a softly warped, pastoral record with Spanish lyrics and prominent Latin guitar; the latter is a more urbane electronic pop record with lyrics in English and Spanish. But in every style Roberto Carlos Lange develops, a sultry, dreamy temperament remains apparent, from the shimmying cadences and simmered arrangements to his just-woken-up voice. Invisible Life is the clearest and most dynamic Helado Negro record to date.

His transition from acoustic to electronic took place on 2011’s Canta Lechuza, which was lively but sometimes drifted through embryonic learning passages. Helado Negro generally deals in smart sounds rather than memorable songs (outside of maybe “El Oeste”) but that changes with Invisible Life. Lange has committed to his MPC game and tightened it up, knotting his signature atmospheres into immersive, highly musical beats scrawled with unstable sub-rhythms. The glass-brick chords and deeply pumping bass of “Dance Ghost” are solidly constructed but hairline-cracked by jittery, stereo-panned clicks, and Lange’s shivery falsetto halfway through lifts the whole arrangement up a level, breaking it free from its foundations. There are many patient, considered payoffs, as when, late in “Arboles”, a staccato synth begins skipping atop the leisurely Latin rhythm.

A nostalgic feel lightly creeps in to Invisible Life, from the cartoonish snake rattles and bird whistles shot through the bass arpeggios of “Lentamente” to the gear-shifting 8-bit theme of “Catastrophe”. Other songs are rooted in Caribbean music or techno. But Lange’s most compelling moments come when he circumvents cultural references, exhuming mysterious but vibrant sound-worlds from the ocean floor of his imagination. He’s never before ventured anything as formally distinctive and effectively delightful as “U Heard”, which feels densely compacted even as its varied timbres peel off in every direction– rubbery plucks bouncing around a low octave, bubble-like blips rising and sinking, and percussion threshing straight ahead.

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A couple tracks don’t measure up to this standard of invention. The rather thin “Relatives”, for instance, plops Helado’s pal Jon Philpot (Bear in Heaven) atop a rocksteady template of knobby bass and skating backbeats and then calls it a day. There are other guests lurking around, including Devendra Banhart supposedly playing guitar on “Arboles”, which isn’t prominent. Helado Negro actually seems to have begun as a more collaborative project. Lange has previously worked with Julianna Barwick and Guillermo Scott Herren. But there’s always been something solitary about it, and the most subtly bewitching tracks on Invisible Life feel like the internal weather of a mind billowing and clearing. His once noticeable traces of tentativeness around electronic tools have disappeared. At the time, Canta Lechuza seemed like Lange dabbling in electronic music, but in the retroactive light of Invisible Life, it sounds more like him finding his voice.

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