Before he became the man behind the one-man band known as Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange was an artist, one who specialized in installations that dealt with sound.
In 2011, he created a piece for the lobby of a corporate tower in Atlanta that consisted of clusters of weather balloons strung with speakers that played a looped track of music and ambient sounds. Anyone crossing the lobby was enveloped in dark piano chords, fluttering woodwinds and even the sound of a barking dog.
One local critic described the space as being submerged in "a wash of sound." That effect — of slipping into an immersive sonic bath — is something that could be said of Lange's musical efforts too.
This month, the musician released his fifth solo album as Helado Negro on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty Label, "Private Energy." The album features his typically unclassifiable mix of alt electronics — which dips into R&B, indie, hip-hop beats and the just plain out-there. (Think: sounds of chirping birds, CDs skipping.)
Lange is the son of Ecuadorean immigrants who grew up in Florida and now lives in New York — and Latin traditions play a role in his music. Over his career, he has sampled Caribbean percussion and Mexican trumpets and channeled the soulful vibes of Chicano rock ballads from the '70s. His lyrics are delivered in a wry combination of English, Spanish and Spanglish.
But do not expect music full of bouncy Latin jams. In fact, as much as critics and writers try to file him into a Latin music corner because of his heritage, his work is firmly rooted in the language of experimental electronica, one that nods to figures such as Brian Eno. Helado Negro crafts moods — moods tinged with bits of darkness and irony and joy, all made more evocative by poetic lyrics and Lange's deep, melancholic voice.
And his live shows border on performance art, featuring grooving figures clad in silvery suits called the Tinsel Mammals. (If you want to see this, you're in luck: Helado Negro plays Multiply LA in downtown on Friday night.)
Like his fine art, the current album is also a surround-sound experience, one that is about creating an environment in which the mind can unspool. A head high rather than a body high.
The track "Lengua Larga" juxtaposes belly-rattling bass beats with lyrics that play with double entendre. Lengua larga — long tongue — is slang that refers to someone who speaks ill of others. The song speaks to confrontation, conflict and discovery. The lyrics also offer crude-funny plays on the carnal.
Other tunes are grounded in contemporary realities, something that sets this album apart from previous efforts (which lean more toward the personally meditative).
"Runaround," a chilled-out layer cake of synth pierced by the jazzier sounds of a ticking high hat, was drawn from Lange's feelings about the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo. The lyrics function like a grim tone poem: "No love can cut our knife in two / Somewhere in space / someone else plays our game."
And in this contentious election year, when talk of border walls and mass deportations have dominated the news, the musician offers a pair of tunes that speak to Latino pride.
"Young, Latin and Proud" sends the message with a bit of soul and a faint echo of trumpets and static — making for an of-the-moment tribute that also feels nostalgic. "It's My Brown Skin" is a drum-filled ode to his brownness. "My brown me is the shade that's just for me," he sings. "There's friends of similar shades / of different ways / who feel the same way / don't ever forget them."
In their low-key delivery, the tunes come off less as anthems than quiet statements of fact, making them all the more powerful.
But the ultimate message of "Private Energy" is really one about the power of sound. Among the 14 tracks are interludes drawn from nature and from the sounds produced by the musician's gear — blips and beeps and keyboards and the squeak of a cassette tape coming to a sudden end.
They are moments that are about listening, about ruminating, moments in which to take it all in.
Helado Negro: Live show at Multiply LA
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: 200 S. Hill St., downtown Los Angeles
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.