Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Courtesy of the artist.
Helado Negro, Private Energy.
Courtesy of the artist.
What feeling of freedom must accompany recording artists who don't use their real names when they write or perform music? Does a musical mask, a second personality, let them create a whole new persona? A way to react differently to the world? I remember one Halloween, I went to a costume party at a friend's office. I didn't know anyone there, and was wearing a costume that included a mask that completely covered my face. I'll never forget the complete freedom as my friend's office mates tried to figure out who I was. I could step outside of myself to dance like James Brown or push the boss aside and take his wife onto the dance floor, to lots of playful oohs and ahhs!
All this is on my mind as I listen to Private Energy, the fascinating new album from the artist who calls himself Helado Negro. The musician behind the name is Roberto Lange, but it's Helado Negro I am more familiar with. I remember once walking around the grounds of a large music festival in Mexico City, and over the din of the crowd hearing his unmistakable keyboard sounds, layered and staccato, some of them over a stripped-down dance club beat. By the time I made my way over to his performance I could see he had three dancers on stage dressed in sci-fi costumes that looked like giant silver Christmas tree tinsel monsters. Just because.
I've listened to Helado Negro for quite a while, and played a lot of his music on our show, Alt.Latino. And still, nobody sounds like him, in any genre. The music on Private Energy is a singular vision that mixes esoteric observations on life with heavy keyboard pastiche, over grooves that range from soft rock to lilting cumbias. "Mi Mano" is a gloriously layered sound collage of computer-generated beats that seem to collide with a wall of synths under cryptic lyrics that could be about anything as if they are waiting for you to assign a narrative from your own life. The album is yet another collection of music with the power to draw you in from a distance, toward a view of the world created by a singular character. Would it sound the same if Roberto Lange was making music under his own name? For now, I'm happy to have him walking around with a mask on, pulling James Brown moves on the dance floor as Helado Negro.