Helado Negro has finally started to straddle the line between folk and electronic music well. Yes, you read that right. While folk music and electronic computer blips seem like opposite ends of the musical spectrum, Helado Negro make them seem like two genres that have always meant to be together. While Helado Negro’s 2009 record Awe Owe featured only acoustic Latin guitars and wispy, Spanish lyrics and his 2011 record Canta Lechuza was a (sometimes lazy) mixture between acoustic and electric sounds, Invisible Life, Helado Negro’s latest LP, balances acoustic and electric meticulously well.
On Dance Ghost, for instance, Roberto Lange combines synths with his soft voice to create a song that’s as spiritual as its title. The track immerses you in its sophisticated, post-chillwave beat, resulting in pleasant, slightly druggy music. Moreover, Lentamente features samples of animal sounds, from birds to snakes, arpeggios, and a tribal drum beat, all which combine to make a linear, driving song that sounds like a Latin-tinged Caribou track. Lentamente means “slowly” in English, an appropriate title for a song that takes over five minutes to travel to its warped, glitchy finish.
While Invisible Life contains tracks that don’t build and climax but rather simply exist for a while before taking sharp turns in different directions, its turns don’t distract the listener from the overall quality of the album. Sure, the transitions on the album, like the one from low-octave blips to high-octave blips on U Heard, are not subtle, but at least you are never let down by a disappointing climax. While sharp transitions are perhaps a lazy way to avoid the challenge of making genre and culture hopping, building techno like, say, DJ Koze did on this year’s unmistakably brilliant Amygdala, Koze’s type of electronic music may not be what Lange is going for. Invisible Life’s intimate vocal inflections render it a personal album, a phenomenon that slightly hurts its accessibility but certainly leaves a certain aura and mystery to Lange’s persona.
But to label Invisible Life completely insular isn’t fully accurate. Tracks like the two-minute, 8-bit Catastrophe add some genre and thematic diversity to the album. Arboles, meanwhile, is a nice return to Helado Negro’s previous style. Featuring freak folk godfather Devendra Banhart on guitar and sounding like a less-folky and more electronic Damien Jurado, the song’s synths that appear towards the end do not dominate, but rather subtly complement its Latin guitars. Elsewhere, the underwhelming and heady (but still worthy of appreciation) Relatives features Bear in Heaven’s Jon Philpot and takes Helado Negro’s linearity to (a bit too much of) an extreme. But the sounds that come to life in the song, most notably its bass, pacify and set you up for the awesome, energetic, hip-hoppy Junes, arguably Invisible Life’s most danceable track.
Overall, Invisible Life is Helado Negro’s best album yet. Even if it’s flawed, and even if you would like to see him take more risks with his music, Invisible Life represents Helado Negro’s impressive, now-complete transition from acoustic to electric, from folk to electronic, from pastorality to not quite urbanity, but more like a tree-filled park in an urban setting. Lange certainly has the talent in him for a truly great album, but to expect that on his first bilingual electronic album is a bit unrealistic. Perhaps most importantly of all, Invisible Life should have you anticipating his next move with simultaneous excitement and chilled-out assurance. You know, like a dancing ghost.