Helado Negro_‘Phasor’

REVIEW: Helado Negro’s ‘Phasor’ is a Psychedelic Ride of Mushrooms & Super Computers

Photo by Sadie Culberson.

Ahead of the release of his eighth studio album, Phasor, Ecuadorian-American singer, producer, and dreamweaver Helado Negro ramped up social media buzz with a slew of insightful teasers and cheeky musings. One notable post came in January, when the artist took to X to share, “This album was on heavy rotation while making my new album,” accompanied by a picture of neatly arranged magic mushrooms. Stirring an approving commotion, the jestful post wasn’t actually far from the truth. Phasor follows in the introspective, and at times over-subtle, footsteps of LPs This Is How You Smile (2019) and Far In (2021), injecting his faithful palette of ambient and new age with throttling blasts of kraut rock and psychedelia. The result is a prismatic and playful dive down the rabbit hole that engages with innovative technology, newfound post-pandemic freedom, and some of the most exciting music Roberto Carlos Lange has crafted in years.

One of the reasons Phasor is notably more dynamic than its predecessors is because of how well it synthesizes Helado Negro’s different sonic eras, merging his Brooklyn indie pop days with the ambient quietness and jazzy drums of his pandemic creations. If Far In was a product of lockdown longing, Phasor is decidedly a record for outside fun in the sun and frenzied moonlit rituals. The album’s nine tracks make for economical listening, transforming the acoustic ruminations of “Flores” and “Es Una Fantasia” into respites from psychedelic madness rather than prolonged lulls.

The album opens on “LFO,” or “Lupe Finds Oliveros,” alluding to the delicate work of Fender amplifier technician Lupe Lopez and minimalist composer Pauline Oliveros. Propulsive bass lines give the song a refreshing rocker edge, unfolding as a fever dream that ponders how doom scrolling can affect our physical and mental well-being. The single’s trippy video features extensive animation from Lange himself, with glinting effects that emulate analog synthesizers, recalling an influential 2019 outing to Salvatore Matirano’s SAL MAR machine at the University of Illinois.

“It’s a complex synthesizer that creates music generatively,” says Lange in the album’s press release. “It has an old super computer brain and analog oscillators. It can be patched in many different ways to create an infinite number of possibilities in sequencing in sound. I was enthralled by it. The range of sounds I recorded during my five hours were a blissed-out moment.”

Lange describes many of these whirring and clicking sounds as the “bedrock” of Phasor. His techie curiosity blooms in the glitching rave of “Wish You Could Be Here” and the retro-futuristic “Out There,” which throbs over robotic loops and delicate vibraphone notes reminiscent of ’60s cocktail parties. Meanwhile, “Echo Tricks Me” sounds like a Khruangbin deep cut composed on his Asheville, NC, porch — with fuzzy guitar pedals meeting textured wind chimes that ground his mind-expanding journeys in the safety of home.

Helado Negro’s confessional sensibilities are all over the album too. In a new making-of video titled Stories of PHASOR, Lange adorns his ode to domestic life, “I Just Want To Wake Up With You,” with moving imagery of interlocking hands. Later, he unspools the melancholy behind “Best For You and Me,” explaining how he found an unlikely confidant in the moon during his parents’ separation. The documentary’s final clip shows Lange strumming his guitar in the sea, illustrating the crescendoing grooves of “Colores Del Mar” and tying into the percussive language of recent productions.

Additionally, it’s this writer’s hope that Phasor‘s more assertive sound will break with the tiresome discourse that has pegged Helado Negro as music for healing. There is certainly contemplative comfort in his work, or at least a sense of relatable safety in catalog staples like “My Brown Skin” and “País Nublado,” which give voice to experiences of social alienation and political uncertainty. However, repetitive reviews from fans and critics alike have projected our collective anxieties onto Roberto Carlos Lange, seeking salvation from a man mostly sharing hypnotic self-reflection.

Catharsis is important, but 15 years of dazzling genre-non-conforming music should not be reduced to therapy. It’s the kind of complimentary platitude that flattens this artist’s crucial contours, losing sight of the significant impact of his 2013 millennial hipster gem Invisible Life or the frankly interminable run of This Is How You Smile. Peaks and valleys are essential to every story, and Phasor‘s biggest triumph is a culmination of countless aural experiments and varying degrees of success. After all this time and so much work, we owe Helado Negro critique, even if all we really want is a hug.

Helado Negro’s Phasor is out now.