Helado Negro – Private Energy 
Private Energy is the fifth album from Roberto Carlos Lange a.k.a. Helado Negro. Written and produced by Lange, Private Energy is an interpersonal communication of sounds about his surroundings past, present, and future. In fourteen tracks, Private Energy coalesces into a truly established musical voice.
In Isaac Asimov’s short story “Runaround,” a robot in 2015 AD named Speedy becomes caught in a feedback loop; programmed to follow the laws of robotics, it becomes disabled when a command from a human (law no. 2) puts its own existence at risk (law no. 3). Stuck between the moral principles that guide it, the robot oscillates between being close enough to danger to require retreat and being far enough that it deems it safe to carry out its orders. Drunk off the cognitive dissonance, its speech becomes nonsensical, and Speedy becomes unable to accept new commands.
In the summer of 2014 AD, Roberto Carlos Lange, fresh off a tour performing as Helado Negro in support of his 2014 album Double Youth, was exhausted and weary about his future.
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch had just announced that there would be no indictment of the officer that killed Michael Brown, and Lange watched as his country publicly fractured along racial lines, wondering where he fit in. A child of Ecuadorian immigrants, the Florida-born musician had a decidedly pluralistic American experience, straddling both the old world and the new while never being fully accepted by either. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the idea of being on the front lines and protesting in the street, he looked inward, and started writing songs.
The songs he sat down to write would become Private Energy, Helado Negro’s fifth LP. The quandary faced by Asimov’s robot Speedy—a being conflicted by contradictions in his own identity—is mirrored by Lange’s experience. “Runaround,” one of the first cuts he wrote for Private Energy, is directly inspired by Asimov’s story, and even cribs some of its lyrics from Speedy’s nonsensical musings (“Hot dog, let’s play games/You catch me and I catch you/no love can cut our knife in two”). Lange has recorded music under a few monikers—Epstein, OMBRE, his own name—but for the last decade, he’s used the Helado Negro project to explore his sense of self. From his debut Awe Owe through Double Youth, most of his lyrics have been in Spanish, and most of his shows performed for people who speak English. It’s a quirk of the Latin diaspora, with artists such as Algódon Egipcio, Xenia Rubinos, and Ela Minus sharing the experience of finding an English-speaking audience for their Spanish-language music.
For Lange, it helps that sonically, the album might be his most accessible yet; half the lyrics are in English, and the abstract sound sculptures that dotted his earlier work are carefully arranged into an orderly sequence as instrumental interludes (“Obra Uno”-“Obra Cuatro”). He takes license with his Spanish, twisting words and phrases to fit his melodies, and he changes the gender of his perspective (“porque soy una mujer/porque sigo siendo tu hombre”) as easily as his adjectives (“tus ojos tan claras”). It’s difficult to find artists with a comparable sound, but the puzzle pieces feel familiar—some Blood Orange horns here, some Peter Bjorn and John bass there, even a dash of some Erlend Øye synths. The music is confident but unaggressive; Even as he experiments with abrasive textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Arca record (“Mi Mano”), the songs are draped in a shimmering sheen. The album is anchored by Lange’s soothing croon; it’s not hard to hear echoes of Julio Jaramillo, a “sappy Ecuadorean crooner” that was a favorite of his father’s. He plays guitar and the keys, samples records, live players, and field recordings, manipulating them beyond recognition and arranging them in pop song structures, and with considerably more skill than on 2009’s Spanish-language beach soundtrack Awe Owe.
Lange’s songwriting process has always been a solitary one—even when he collaborates, players will track music and then leave him to his own devices, to assemble the puzzle pieces. And while every Helado Negro record has been made at Lange’s home, he spent most of 2015 workshopping Private Energy in public. The songs were essentially finished in January 2015, but he took them on the road—including nine dates with Sufjan Stevens—pulling feedback from the crowd’s energy in real-time, fine-tuning the compositions. He used a $50,000 prize from the Joyce Foundation to help fund an 18-piece ensemble in St. Paul, Minnesota, working with his composer friends Jason Ajemian and Trey Pollard to meticulously arrange his oeuvre for the big stage. Seasoned from a year on the road, he finally re-recorded the Private Energy songs in January 2016.
Private Energy may gaze inward, but its themes are rooted in these connections with others. When he sings of waking up feeling “Young, Latin and Proud,” that pride and power is rooted in a shared history and culture. He has an intimate relationship with the skin that covers his body, but it’s an experience shared by every brown person on earth. He seeks to reconcile the transference of energy involved in recording and performing music (“We Don’t Have Time for That”) and the celebration of everything about being Latinx that feels great, terrible, or even just confusing. That same dark skin that protects him from the sun’s rays makes him vulnerable; too dark for white people, too light for black people, his Spanish too foreign for some Americans but too gringo outside the U.S.
This desire to connect with others is fundamental, but it’s the parts we choose to share that define our relationships and, ultimately, ourselves. On “Transmission Listen,” Lange sings paradoxical couplets to a lover as starry synths twinkle in the background (“And I feel invincible without your wisdom/But I feel invisible without your wit”). Human ingenuity has joined them via satellite, but they can’t be honest enough with each other to actually come together. Here, and throughout the album, he probes the depths of his own psyche, masking the painful process with a velvet voice. Lange seems to be asking if it’s even possible to let other people in without first reconciling your own identity. Which parts should be private, and which parts should be shared? He’s caught in between the incongruous parts of himself, and the sentiment permeates the entirety of Private Energy. [Source]
February 13th, 2017