Invisible Life – Helado Negro

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Invisible Life, Roberto Carlos Lange’s latest album as Helado Negro, is more an extension of 2011’s majestically spaced Canta Lechuza than a departure from it. This time around, Lange just lets more fully formed songs coalesce out of his experiments.

The first major sign of growth is “Dance Ghost.” In addition to sounding like the score of a prom night fantasy taken directly from the collective unconscious, it could also be the sound of Neon Indian’s dreams dying. It’s expansive yet intimate. It glitters with the blackly romantic possibilities of vintage synthpop, but it’s too personal and purposeful to look backward. It’s nimble and alive with squelching subaquatic blips, but it’s so smooth that it sounds like it could have written itself. In short, “Dance Ghost” is the kind of thing retrograde bedroom dwellers of the past few years have been chasing after, but it operates above the limitations of anything that could rightfully be called a chillwave (ok, maybe nothing should have ever been called chillwave). But as exhilarating as the song is, it’s really just one mode that this increasingly dexterous artist steps into on Invisible Life.

Lange’s agility makes him difficult to pin down, but his closest compatriot might be Panda Bear. The two songwriters share an affinity for constructing songs from dense loops, and for building said loops from both heavily mutated samples and organic instrumentation. They also typically lend sonic depth to even their most inwardly focused music by coloring it with tropical hues and watery ambience. But while nearly every second of Noah Lennox’s underappreciated 2011 effort Tomboy felt weighed down by spiritual turmoil, Invisible Life is fundamentally freer. Even when navigating his way through thorny themes like isolation and romantic disillusion, Lange seems empowered and driven by the range of expression that can come from simply bouncing sounds off of each other.

Hear, for instance, how the loping rhythm of “Lentamente” defragments into a phased wobbliness that could almost be mistaken for late-career J Dilla. This probably isn’t coincidental. No matter how many times you return to Jay Dee’s Donuts, it’s still somehow too slippery to predict. Similarly, Invisible Life, while unfailingly mellow and amicable, is always outdistancing the listener’s expectations by a few paces. From the electro/acoustic trade-offs to the balance between English and Spanish lyrics, Lange never ceases to surprise. Importantly, though, he also never overextends his considerable reach into pretension.

On paper, a cameo from psych-maximalist Jon Philbot (Bear In Heaven’s primary singer-songwriter) seems like it could really stall the flow of late-album highlight “Relatives.” Or at least come off as totally superfluous. Yet Lange wisely pits Philbot’s smooth, keening vocals as counterpoint to his own whispery, cool croon, drawing a darkly obsessive tension out of the song in the process. Similarly, the Neu!-like percolations that propel “Catastrophe” could easily be taken as affectation if they didn’t create such an arresting friction when paired with bleary slow-dance synths. Invisible Life may be rife with transporting textures that make us feel weightless, but the album itself is anything but vacuous, each one of its details aimed at creating a more emotionally developed world of enveloping sound.