HISTORIO: Matt Johnson | Burning Blue Soul (1981)

Clearly it wasn’t yesterday—I was alternating between Meat Loaf, The Beatles, and Jean Michel Jarre. My music was basically the bank of records my parents had. At least twice a year my dad and his friends headed up to the Scottish Highlands to do some hillwalking, canoeing, fishing, drinking, and generally hanging out in remote and highly beautiful places.

I’d been invited along as the token kid in August 1985, just before my 12th birthday. We were heading to Knoydart, widely regarded as one of the last true wilderness areas in Scotland. As we drove to the end of the twisting single-track road towards Kinloch Hourn, my dad’s friend Bernie produced a cassette and pressed play. Steve Winwood’s Back in the Highlife Again mingled perfectly in my young mind with the unfolding gorgeousness of the landscape. I asked if Bernie would mind taping that for me when we got home, and he agreed.

A few weeks later, my dad came home from work and handed me a cassette. Side A had the Winwood album and Side B had the first album by Belouis Some. There was just enough space on the tape at the end of Side B for the 12” version of Uncertain Smile by The The. I listened to the whole 90 minutes of the tape in my room, but fairly rapidly, the weird percussive start of Uncertain Smile became a loop that made the bloated pop cheese elsewhere on the tape evaporate from my mind.

I quickly absorbed Infected and Soul Mining and started drawing ropey pastiches of Andy Dog’s angular and provocative illustrations all over my schoolbooks. And only a few months since I’d first discovered The The, I spotted Burning Blue Soul in the Virgin record store in Edinburgh and feeling pretty damn confident, dropped the small fortune of £6.49 on the vinyl.

Being totally honest, Infected and most of Soul Mining aren’t places I go much (if ever) these days. But Burning Blue Soul is another matter entirely. It remains one of the most incredible pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life. Even if I concede a tiny fogginess of nostalgia, I still think it transcend all the “good old days” nonsense… it’s still snarling, terrifying, multi-layered, and downright exhilarating. Listening to it over 30 years later, it floats in a musical space that’s unanchored to any timeframe, a trick so few other albums seem to have managed.

Red Cinders in the Sand sets a perfect scene of total confusion. Some mashed-up tribal field recording with avant garde flourishes. Fried guitar over strumming guitar, primitive electronics under mile-high walls of sonic scree. Everything is wrapped in a blanket of some Saharan vibe with wave after wave of new details emerging in writhing masses of weirdness and abrasion.

And Song Without an Ending, emerging out of piano spirals that lead into the coolest twanging guitar groove. The music isn’t some pedestrian backdrop to someone singing banalities over the top. The voice sits inside the music, no more or less important, it’s an environment to lose your head in. Time Again for the Golden Sunset introduces a strange-textured accordion that would be laced throughout later work. Icing Up whips into an effect-laden groove that splits into two layers in an extended end section. The tracing of sound reflected and rippling in two different directions at the same time.

Side one was fairly uniform is its dazzling kaleidoscope of fuzzed-out textures, but side two was the first time that I’d ever felt out my depth with music. Way scarier than the red weed part of War of the Worlds, The River Flows East in Spring, the penultimate track, had shocked me to the core. A strange cult choir chanting, “Die young! Die young! Hey, die young!” It felt the furthest my young mind had travelled from normality.

The “karate-chop piano” section wasn’t scary, but dumped me in another bizarre zone that was hardly Top of the Pops, either. The fact the album pushed and pulled the listener so far just made much of what else was around at the time sound paper-thin in comparison.

Another Boy Drowning ends the album, and in a way, feels like it exists in a slightly different space from the nine fucked-up snapshots of the world that proceeded it. The very moment Matt Johnson became The The.

Listening today is to join the dots to vast swathes of music, everything from Roland Kayn, Flying Saucer Attack, Boredoms, Eno, Joakim Skogberg, and Syd Barrett. A stew of acid folk, strangely twisted electronics, and tape collage.

It’s truly an amazing and singular collection. That Johnson was only 18 and played everything himself only made the feat all the more impressive. Wire’s Lewis and Gilbert helps with various production duties, but I’m pretty sure Johnson’s vision is what makes it the mind-blower it still is.

Burning Blue Soul is an album I still play every month or so, not as some sort of candle lit in remembrance of my youth. It still resonates, fizzes, and pops with invention that has been rarely matched. While there is some naivety at play, its lyrics also hang wonderfully as an acerbic commentary on our present day.

Whether you’re a creative, moody teenager or just have adventurous older ears, it’s something that begs to be part of your collection.

I’m fairly sure that in my ongoing musical adventures, Burning Blue Soul would have been an album I’d have found at some point. But, thanks to Bernie making up the tape for me all those years ago, trying to guess what else I might like—he got it so right. And clearly all these years later as this story proves, so did Matt.


Burning Blue Soul is available from here
Article orginally appereared on Brown Noise Unit in March 2018

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