Bruce Peninsula – ‘Open Flames’

Review by Jordaan Mason

“You can’t hide what you want.” This album is not about hiding anything. As soon as the drums and vocals burst in, you know this record isn’t going down without a fight. Open Flames is a pleading, a collective prayer for redemption, evocative of shedding a former skin and becoming something wholly new.

Bruce Peninsula aren’t known for being subtle, but a lot of their strength stems from this refusal (there are very few “quiet” moments on this record, and they have been chosen carefully). Although the songs often evoke imagery of apocalypse and defeat, they never come across as “dark.” In fact, they state matter-of-factly “I don’t need this darkness and doubt.”

Of course what’s always immediately striking about Bruce Peninsula is the vocals, which are, by mandate, always decisively ambitious. Here, the multiplicity of voices work as a kind of altercation, riffing off one another until they find a resolve, which maintains a perfect tension throughout all of Open Flames. Instrumentally, the band have expanded their sonic palette beyond the traditional folk and gospel sounds of their previous effort, furthering the world-music influence on the guitar and drum rhythms, which creates wonderful surprises in tempo and direction. They have found a penchant for lighter, more fluid bass and guitar lines as well, most noticeable in songs like “In Your Light” and “Adrenaline.”

The themes here are more personal than the regional themes that dominated A Mountain is a Mouth. The album is specifically not about resolve, but struggle; the songs work through various states of how to find atonement and forgiveness for past mistakes. The language they use is of a religious dialect: baptism, sacrifice, redemption. But how to buy one’s freedom, how to transform out of the struggle? Shed one’s skin (“As Long As I Live”)? Drown oneself (“Pull Me Under”)?

The apex lies in the title track, in which the devil offers an open flame on which all of their “sordid sins” can be rid. “Whatever you’ve got to burn, throw it on the fire.” The act of burning all personal possessions, both material and ethereal, is seen here as the transformative act: this process allows a kind of salvation. In the last song, “Chupacabra,” they sing: “Soon there will be nothing harder than the simple life I know,” which purposefully doesn’t resolve everything, but allows for a contemplation towards the future, about what is beyond this transformation.

The presence of the album is commanding; this is not music to be ignored. The songs bleed into one another to form a long chain of images, growing and shifting, and never letting a guard down. It seems unstoppable, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions that it begs. Instead, it muses; it hunts. It lays everything bare. And most importantly it asks: once everything is on the table, how do we allow ourselves to be absolved of the past?