The Conet Project – Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations (1997)
For years amateur shortwave radio enthusiasts have been coming across strange signals in the global static. These mysterious broadcasts would typically announce themselves with some beeps and blips, then robotic disembodied voices would start reciting groups of numbers (or phonetic alphabet letters) in spooky foreign monotones. ‘Seven, zero, nine, eleven…Seven, zero, nine, eleven…’; ‘Alpha, charlie, lima, delta…Alpha, charlie, lima, delta…’ Then, after a few minutes, they disappeared. This was weird. ‘What the hell is it?!’, was on the lips of many listeners. They became known as Numbers Stations, and no official explanation had ever been given when Akin Fernandez came across them in 1992. So the industrious radio addict started to log the frequencies and the times and the messages of these enigmatic occurrences. And more importantly, he recorded them. Some appeared at random. Some were as regular as clockwork. He had no idea what he was going to do with all the data. But he eventually compiled them into a collection he called The Conet Project, and he made it freely available. Along the way, Fernandez would eventually learn the nature of these numbers, and the answer to the long asked question was sobering. These were covert messages sent to field operatives for all the major espionage agencies over the world: CIA, KGB, MI6, BND, StB, MOSSAD etc. Since WWI shortwave has provided these agencies with a world-wide fool-proof method for communicating with their spies. The encoded message could be received and deciphered by the spy with the use of a “one time pad”, a disposable dictionary key, intended for use only once, then presumably burnt, destroyed, eaten etc. Immediately the broadcasts take on an ominous overtone. The voice of a child eerily reading out numbers could well be instructing a spy to kill someone or blow something up. They’re a compelling listen. I got right into them. I even got myself a shortwave radio and started to scan the late night bands. And Fernandez’s recordings have slowly become a cult thing, popping up in sampled form in film (Vanilla Sky) and music (Boards of Canada), most famously by Wilco on their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s still freely available to download from Akin Fernandez’s label Irdial-Discs website, so if you haven’t heard it, get ready to be spooked. Literally.
Stars of the Lid – And Their Refinement of the Decline (2007)
You know when you close your eyes, and you see that glittering mosaic of abstract shapes shifting in the dark light? Well that’s what the name Stars of the Lid refers to. And it’s the perfect handle for this band. The Texas duo (Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie) have been making drone music since 1993, and their music typifies these inner embryonic moments. Over the course of eight studio albums, starting with Music for Nitrous Oxide (1995) to this, Stars of the Lid have changed very little at first glance. But upon repeated listens, each album reveals subtle shifts in instrumentation, presentation and direction. The intent may remain the same, which seems to be to make moving minimal music for personal private consumption, perhaps while laying back, eyes closed, lights off, surrendering to the sound and the environment, letting the music transport you to unknown destinations. Your emotions and your imagination are paramount here. If you let it, this music will flesh out thoughts and dreams and feelings you weren’t aware existed. The music ages slowly, and it changes imperceptibly sometimes. Like life, I guess. This is ambient music rendered not with the cold fluorescent light of layered electronics, but with the warm candlelight of strings, horns, guitars, organ and piano. No vocals. No percussion. So it pulses in different ways than most ambient fans may be accustomed to. Everything is controlled and orchestrated with a gentle precision. There is apparently a feature length film coming out about Stars of the Lid, and having seen the teaser trailer, I’m sure it will make more people realise the emotional power this music can wield. Get your pillows ready now. Zap the Milo in the microwave. I can’t wait…
Elvis Presley – The Essential Elvis Presley (2007)
What can I say, really? The King. The Man. He’s pretty much the first rock star. (Bill Haley cringes in the grave, again. Along with Bo Diddley). Elvis was/is the archetypal blueprint for Rock’n’Roll. (Though I’d argue Buddy Holly deserves that title just as much). Elvis paved they way through the birth of rock in the mid-fifties and came to symbolise the untouchable icon perhaps better than any. A po’ boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, taking inspiration from the Rhythm & Blues originators of Memphis, and the Southern Gospel of his youth, he brought the edgy, dangerous ‘Devil’s Music’ to a wider (and whiter) audience. He had the looks. He had the voice. He had the swagger. He had ‘it’. His story is now the thing of legend. From the early rockabilly Sun Records songs like: “That’s All Right (Mama)”, “Mystery Train” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. Then the move to RCA and the breakthrough hits, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender”. Elvis was away. The hips were shaking, the girls were screaming and the oldies were outraged. He was punk before punk. Sex/Youth/Energy had entered the world of music like never before. And things would never be the same. The late-50s and early-60s saw Elvis move onto the silver screen, and the hits kept coming too. This was perhaps the birth of cross-promotional marketing, and the birth of the MEGA-star. He made something like 30 movies in half as many years. If John Lennon didn’t beat him to the punch, Elvis could’ve claimed he was bigger than God. Or was God. I dig Elvis, of course, and appreciate his immeasurable contribution to the world of music. (I probably wouldn’t be writing about music if it weren’t for Elvis. No one would. He helped legitimise Rock’n’Roll and turn it into a bona fide cultural phenomenon). My personal favourites are the late-60s era songs. I dig the dramatic theatre of songs like: “In the Ghetto”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “Kentucky Rain”. His voice had deepened and he channelled the forlorn narratives beautifully. This album (part of Sony BMG’s Essential series) is a great selection of songs that does its best to cover the entire spectrum of Elvis and his impressive career.
By Decoy Spoon