Creating a concept album can be tricky without lyrics. If David Bowie hadn’t sung one word on Diamond Dogs, would anyone have picked up on it being a glam rock companion to George Orwell’s 1984? Probably not. To create an instrumental album that is also thematically cohesive takes a stronger understanding of the relationship between the melody and its subject. The music has to speak for itself, conveying every emotion, every feeling, even creating personalities. Prefuse 73 accomplished this four years ago with One Word Extinguisher, his IDM hip-hop break-up album (ignore the fact that it had a handful of guest rappers). Around the same time of that release, Canadian ambient artist Tim Hecker had constructed an album of instrumentals inspired by the sea, Radio Amor.
Originally released on Mille Plateaux and reissued this year on Alien8, Radio Amor takes its inspiration from “Jimmy,” a fisherman and shrimper who gave Hecker a ride on his visit to Honduras. The album art, alone, is telling, depicting images of palm trees, water and ships, while the song titles reveal even more: “Song of the Highwire Shrimper,” “The Star Compass,” “Trade Winds, White Heat.” But even without these images to accompany the musical sojourn, Hecker crafts a masterful aquatic atmosphere, the static and synth loops woven between one another like ocean currents and the tide. Moreover, that static, much like the kind that opens “Spectral,” acts like shortwave radio broadcasts, a symbol of the sort of broken communication used when miles and miles away from the shore. Further into that track, however, and the layers of amorphous waves create an underwater-like sound; one can almost see the sun’s reflection off the surface above.
The noise-ridden piano samples in “I’m Transmitting Tonight” seem to go in and out like waves crashing on the land, while “Shipyards Off La Ceiba” has a more restrained, abstract synth gurgle about it that, while quirky, still exudes a feeling of isolation. “The Star Compass” is one of the most gorgeous compositions, crackling and hissing while woozy, light melodies float just overhead. “Azure Azure,” however, sounds much more ominous and harrowing; this could very well be the `red sky at morning’ that sailors most fear.
With original copies yielding prices around $30 each, this re-release came at the right time. Four years later, its evocative pieces are as powerful as ever. It may all be sampled and manufactured, to some degree, but this is a human album. Hecker’s 2003 standout is a stirringly emotional narrative, without the slightest aid of a single voice.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.