It’s one of those wonderful consequences of living in a polyglot society that the term “American music” is musically meaningless. Roberto Carlos Lange has one of those quintessentially American stories, at least for a certain segment of the population. As the son of Ecuadorian immigrants and a native of southern Florida, he and his music are clearly informed by his heritage, but would it sound anything like this without its incubation in an American cocoon? Doubtful. The influences that are present in the music may be primarily South American (still disparate), but the sinews of the product—the rasping electronics, the congealed materials, the sheer joy of assemblage—that’s democracy in action.
Lange has, to date, made his name as a frequent collaborator with Guillermo Scott Herren, including being a full and equal partner in Savath y Savalas. But while Herren and Lange share affinities for similar sounds and genres, there’s a stark difference between the two when it comes to process—this is quickly apparent on Lange’s new album, Awe Owe, under his pseudonym Helado Negro. And without the frenetic, beat-chopping Herren in the mix, Lange has crafted a very different sort of Latin experimentalism.
Take the fourth track, “Dahum”: Lange turns the sung title into a sketchy beat that would make Herren proud, but rather than have it as a trace element in a torrid collage, it’s kept as more of a glitch-mantra that sputters in and out throughout the entire track. Just as a matter of course, Lange tends to use only one basic framework per song—harmonic progressions rarely change, the main timbres are limited (usually light percussion, nylon-string guitars, and vocals), and the moods are fixed. In that sense, it owes a debt to the forms often found in the ’90s-era Chicago scene. (“Awe”, the eighth track on the album, actually sounds like it could come from an early Tortoise record, with its punctuated bass groves—interestingly, Savath y Savalas’s first album, released when it was still a Herren solo project, often did as well.)
But Awe Owe‘s not actually that static, despite the imposed limitations. The narcomatous “Dos Suenos” hinges on the interplay of as many pure sounds as possible—vocal harmonies, whistling, theremins, soft guitars—that cross in and out of the music, changing within themselves to create a forward flow even as the overall effect seems to drift out into the ether. The summer bounce of “I Wish” carefully adds and subtracts elements of percussion and electronics under a basic guitar riff for two minutes, until the riff fades out and the underlying weirdness is left out bare. When Lange fades the guitars back in, the melody has been transmuted slightly, containing two scale degrees instead of three. It’s effective and beautiful.
In fact, pretty much all of the album is just gorgeous. “Espuma Negra” might be the most beautiful track I’ve heard all year. The distorted organ-thing at the end of “Dahum” is a strange coda to a strange song, but pretty much perfect all the same. As is often the case, a great deal of what makes Lange’s music repeatably enjoyable and efficacious is this sort of attention to sound; the synthesis and effects are novel, but integrated so well and skillfully that they don’t wear thin. Their use, like the record as a whole, is both catchy and rewarding.