Music

Mountains, Machines & Mushrooms: Helado Negro Talks New Album ‘Phasor’ 

Few artists blend the organic with the electronic as seamlessly and thoughtfully as Roberto Carlos Lange, known by his stage name Helado Negro. With his ninth studio album, Phasor, the Ecuadorian-American singer/producer embarks on a journey that transcends the boundaries of sound, technology, and nature. This voyage is underscored by an unexpected triad: the majestic Smoky Mountains, the humble mushroom, and a supercomputer.

Following the success of Far In, which peaked at No. 85 on Billboard‘s Top Album Sales chart in November 2021, Phasor emerges as a culmination of the creative’s evolving musical style and thematic exploration, from the drum and bass-leaning This Is How You Smile (2019) to the quarantine reflections of Far In.

Phasor defies easy categorization — a trait Lange himself acknowledges. “The main story can be so elusive,” he muses. “There’s intention, but there’s also obscurity and literal meanings.” This openness sets the stage for an album rich in multifaceted themes, from introspection and personal connection to profound engagements with the natural world.

Echoes of the Smoky Mountains

The Florida-bred musician’s move from Brooklyn to Asheville, North Carolina, marked a significant shift in his creative landscape. “My connection was water, the beach and mostly city life,” Lange remembers about his upbringing, and evinced in “Colores del Mar.” The Smoky Mountains’ breathtaking beauty and tranquility offered a stark contrast to the urban environments he had previously inhabited. “The mountains are really spectacular. They surround you, going hiking, having all these views and being able to see so much. It really affected me,” the singer mentions, where the serene and the sublime merge, as his “mountainous muses.”

From Fungi to Frequencies

Ahead of Phasor‘s release, Lange piqued interest with a social media post on X displaying a collection of magic mushrooms, suggesting they played a role in the album’s creation. “This album was on heavy rotation while making my new album,” he wrote. While playful, this isn’t far from the truth: The album embodies a psychedelic exploration not just in sound but in spirit (listen to the exploratory sounds of “Out There” and “Echo Tricks Me”), drawing parallels between the mind-expanding journey of psychedelics and the boundless possibilities of musical exploration.

“There’s this physical space and then this mental and spiritual space that gives me more freedom to feel a little more quiet in my mind,” he tells Billboard Español. “Also having a little more focus and deeper intention with my work.” 

Bridging Histories Through Sound

Opening track “LFO” (Lupe Finds Oliveros) connects the legacies of two pioneering women: Pauline Oliveros, an Tejana avant-garde musician known for her philosophy of deep listening, and Lupe López, a Mexican-American Fender amplifier technician from the 1950s whose meticulous craftsmanship has resonated through time. Lange found inspiration in the intersecting stories of Oliveros and López, tying together their contributions to music and sound. 

Oliveros’s work in deep listening — a practice of fully immersing oneself in the sounds of one’s environment — and López’s renowned precision in the Fender factory highlight a shared legacy of listening and creating with intention.

Lange was captivated by the narrative of collectors and niche enthusiasts who treasure the unique tone of amplifiers that bear Lopez’s signature “Her amp was on the assembly line where there were multiple workers making them. Each person wrote their name on a piece of masking tape, and put it inside the amp. They call them the Lupe amps,” he shares with admiration. “I think it’s really endearing, and I find it really amazing…the value is really in the appreciation for the care that she put into it.”

Through “LFO,” the musician not only honors these two figures but also delves into broader themes of listening, identity and the enduring impact of those who’ve shaped the landscape of sound. “I really appreciated… how all those things connected between her, Lupe, and the people who are appreciating Lupe’s work,” Lange comments. This track, and the album as a whole, invites listeners to explore the deep connections between music’s history and its future, reminding us of the power of sound to bridge disparate worlds.

A Symphony with a Supercomputer

The album’s technological heart beats with the rhythm of the SalMar synthesizer, a unique instrument that encapsulates Lange’s fascination with the intersection of music and machinery. Corresponding with the archivist at the University of Illinois since 2019, he spent hours with the SalMar synth, finding inspiration in its capability to create music generatively, using a blend of old supercomputer brains and analog oscillators. 

“An Italian-American educator and musician, Salvatore Martirano, invented it for himself to make generative music that constantly changes and evolves. It’s a one of a kind instrument,”  he shares. “He would perform with it live, and listen, this thing is huge to travel with. One of the musical pieces he published at the time was ‘L’s GA, Ballad, Octet‘ short for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, an anti-war piece against the Vietnam War. I thought it was cool to see all these deeper intentions with it, [denouncing] the corrupt mentality of violence, but then also pushing through with invention, creativity, and inspiration.” 

“There’s such a uniqueness to it,” he says, underscoring the instrument’s influence on the album. The SalMar’s “loops, textures and ideas” permeate Phasor, serving as a bridge between the digital and the organic, the past and the present.

Performing Phasor Live and Beyond

As Lange looks ahead, the live performance of Phasor represents an exciting frontier. The dynamic nature of live music allows Phasor to evolve in real-time, offering audiences a unique experience that captures the essence of his creative vision. “Performing this music live has been so fun recently,” says the artist. “What’s really cool about that is that context can’t be changed. To experience live music, you have to be there in person.”

He adds, “I love it when people are able to determine their own [interpretation]. There’s no prescriptive way to listen to this record. I listen to it in so many different formats, at home, in my car, jogging. It’s really important to find connections where you can.” 

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