Compiled and edited by Akin O. Fernandez and his Iridial imprint, The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations presents five hours' worth of recordings of numbers stations taken from shortwave radio transmissions. Who could have thought that such an undertaking would be largely embraced by underground music fans? Originally issued in 1998, the initial four-CD box set sold out in respectable time and became a highly sought after -- and expensive -- collector's item. The 2004 re-press was made possible because of the settlement of a lawsuit between Fernandez and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. Wilco's 2002 breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was named for an unauthorized sample from a track off The Conet Project. The sample, a woman's voice with an indecipherable accent, repetitively intones three words, "Yankee…hotel…foxtrot," which loops for a minute and a half during Wilco's track "Poor Places." The legal battle took nearly two years, and ended with Tweedy agreeing to the settlement. Fernandez used the money to re-press The Conet Project.
But what are numbers stations, you might ask. They are radio stations that can be heard on the shortwave band. Unlike regular SW stations, they don't have call letters and are not registered -- in fact, no government in the world is even willing to acknowledge their existence, even though anyone with a SW radio can tune in to them, either willingly or by accident. These stations transmit Morse signals; melodic fragments; strings of numbers (hence their nickname) spoken by male, female, and artificial voices; and other strange noises. They are believed to be means by which intelligence services communicate with spies (since tuning in to a shortwave frequency leaves no trace, unlike receiving e-mails or phone calls), and there is a worldwide network of station spotters attempting to decipher and unmask these mystery stations and their cryptic transmissions. The Conet Project was first and foremost collected for these aficionados (the booklet is very extensive in details and log codes for each recorded station). But the whole project also has a wider appeal, as the impact it had on many an experimental and ambient artist can testify.
First of all, the highly characteristic background noise of the shortwave band is something to behold: rich in swooshes, buzzes, and other eerie interference. Second, some of these recordings, skillfully edited by Fernandez, are truly strange, even disturbing (the otherworldly voices, distorted by the distance they have traveled; the odd choices of musical IDs; the foreign languages; the nonsense words). Third and most of all, the whole thing is a feast for the imagination, its undercurrents of secrecy, spying activities, and paranoia giving these recordings forbidden meanings. Several artists have later sampled and otherwise borrowed material from this collection. The sound quality is good considering the circumstances (some of these recordings were 20 years old, others were brand new, but they all still come from the shortwave band), but it still takes some dedication or curiosity to enjoy this set. If you don't own a shortwave radio, this is the next best thing to listening to numbers stations "live," and if you do, you'll find yourself paying much more attention to the odd transmissions you used to dismiss. Of course, if you are already into these kinds of covert mysteries, The Conet Project is the most complete audio resource available.