In the annals of non-musical recordings — curiosities like Smithsonian Folkways’ Sounds of North American Frogs and the clanging Cable Car Soundscapes — few albums have generated more passionate cult followings than The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations. Originally released in 1997, the four-disc set proffers 150 tracks’ worth of bleeps, radiophonic warble, and, principally, recitations of numbers, in multiple languages. If it sounds like the most cryptic thing in the world, that’s because it is: The collection represents a massive archive of Cold War-era spy transmissions, which were sent in code over open shortwave signals.
Nearly five hours long, it’s hardly the kind of thing you’re likely to put in your CD changer and listen to all the way through, unless you’re given to hosting some really strange dinner parties. Nevertheless, The Conet Project has attracted an avid following over the years. San Francisco’s Aquarius Records used to keep a running tally of the numbers of copies it had sold, along with photographs of celebrity purchasers, like Mike Patton; as of the box set’s last re-press, the store had sold 680 copies — an unthinkable number for a single title in a mom-and-pop record store in the Mission. A snippet of the record’s spectral swirl made it into Vanilla Sky, and Wilco sampled a portion of The Conet Project on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, going so far as to title their album after a string of numbers-station code. Irdial, the label that put together the compilation, sued Wilco for copyright violation — and won.
Now, after years out of print, Irdial is reissuing The Conet Project, this time with a fifth, previously unreleased disc of abstract transmissions from so-called “Noise Stations” along with an updated 80-page booklet and a set of postcards. They may be tearing down the remaining portions of the Berlin Wall, but here’s a chance to get your hands on an authentic piece of Cold War history. (If you prefer to try before you buy, listen to the entire four hours and 50 minutes of the thing below. Warning: May cause confusion, paranoia, and, for listeners of a certain age, “duck and cover” flashbacks.)