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Bill Brovold and Jamie Saft – Serenity Knolls – RareNoise 

Bill Brovold and Jamie Saft – Serenity Knolls [TrackList follows] – RareNoise RNR076, 76:28 [3/31/17] ****:

Guitarists Bill Brovold and Jamie Saft expand their horizons.

(Bill Brovold – electric guitar; Jamie Saft – Dobro, lap steel guitar)

This instrumental duo project by guitarist Bill Brovold and multi-instrumentalist Jamie Saft is an unexpected venture. Anyone familiar with Brovold or Saft’s previous musical output may suppose the 76-minute, 12-track Serenity Knolls to have powerful, aggressive material. Saft is known for his keyboard contributions to hard-hitting artists such as Plymouth, Bobby Previte, Merzbow and others who are notable for brash music. Brovold was part of the NYC no-wave movement of the early ‘80s, collaborating with Rhys Chatham; Brovold also led the Detroit band Larval; and has many more credits. Both Saft and Brovold reside in the Hudson Valley area in upstate New York, became friends, and eventually decided to record together. The end result is this RareNoise release, which is an unanticipated excursion into Americana. Brovold is heard on electric guitar while Saft is on Dobro and lap steel guitar, and the most immediate impression is understatement: a nearly introspective, minimalist and folk-flecked flair. There’s more rural and pastoral, more acoustic blues and subtle country and folk influences at play than anything remotely akin to avant-garde, noise rock, or other elements typically associated with Saft and Brovold. Serenity Knolls has been issued on vinyl, digital download and CD. This review refers to the CD version.

The dozen original, Americana instrumentals capture the feeling of wide spaces, of geography which stretches to distant horizons, where nature abides and there is openness everywhere. Saft and Brovold commence with the deliberately drifting “Sweet Grass,” where Brovold’s echo-flourished electric guitar strumming is at center stage. Saft enters around the two-minute mark of the 8:33 piece, his Dobro gliding with sustained notes which glisten like sheened water drops. There is an expressiveness which heightens the 7:25 tune, “Mitchimakinak,” which is the Ojibwa designation for Michigan’s Mackinac Island, a resort site on Lake Huron. After an opening riff, “Mitchimakinak” delves into a shadowy equivocation where Dobro and electric guitar hover, and then Brovold’s main riffing theme resurfaces to carry the music forward. The five-minute “Saddle Horn” has lonesome blues clairvoyance, as Brovold and Saft dip into deep-rooted acoustic blues, somewhat analogous to early Ry Cooder. The lengthiest cut is the almost nine-minute “Thermopolis,” which is probably derived from the small Wyoming town known for its natural hot springs and more recently was in the path of the 2017 total eclipse of the sun. Unsurprisingly, “Thermopolis” has an expansive, rustic texture, where listeners can hear Saft improvising on Dobro, etching a folk-inflected tonality while Brovold provides strumming riffs which are imprinted with a West-like quality. Another number seemingly named for a small town far from city life is the nearly six-minute “Bemidji.” Bemidji is a northern Minnesota township which also gets its etymology from the Ojibwa. Here, Saft switches to a droning lap steel guitar, which gives the track a sharpened hone and specific sonic sound which is whetted and curved. Saft continues on lap steel guitar on the country-cadenced “No Horse Seen,” which brings to mind mountains where only wild creatures dwell and no domesticated animals dare visit. The five-minute “No Horse Seen” is the CD’s most minimalistic moment, where both guitarists settle on single notes or a repeating, simple motif. The final tune which features Saft’s lap steel guitar is the minor key “Greybuli.” During the seven-minute “Greybuli” Saft and Brovold create a gradual, glacial undercurrent which is reminiscent of John Fahey’s electric guitar efforts or a less experimental Loren Mazzacane Connors.

The duo concludes with the title track and a cut entitled “Silent Midpoint.” The title track and the album were named after the rehab center where Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia passed away. The title track has a tranquil characteristic and a capacious, incisive inclination which befits Garcia’s memory. There are no psychedelic streaks present, but there is plenty of the folk and blues which were part of Garcia’s side projects and early, pre-Dead career. “Silent Midpoint” resumes the album’s mannerism and conveyance of outlying distances and acoustic/electric intimacy. Saft’s liquescent Dobro has a blues finesse while Brovold maintains a poised restraint on electric guitar. Serenity Knolls may not be the forceful music Brovold or Saft fans might desire, but if someone wants evocative, landscape-limned guitar music, this is an album which supports that idea.

TrackList:
Sweet Grass
Mitchimakinak
Saddle Horn
Wendigo
Thermopolis
The Great American Bison
Bemidji
No Horse Seen
Splintering Wind
Greybuli
Serenity Knolls
Silent Midpoint

—Doug Simpson

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