Ross Ainslie – Sanctuary
Great White Records – 1 December 2017
Back in December, award-winning Perthshire multi-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie added to an already impressive string of releases spanning the last few years, with a new solo project – Sanctuary. This is the third solo album Ross has recorded, and it’s one that stands out as unique; for a variety of reasons. In Sanctuary, Ross successfully blends his talent for creating exceptional music, such as in contemporary trad duos with Jarlath Henderson and Ali Hutton, with the more global influences of projects such as India Alba and Treacherous Orchestra, and in his successful solo albums. His critically acclaimed solo debut, Wide Open, in 2013, and the explorative Remembering (2015) both provided ample evidence of his adaptability, but there’s the added conceptual nature of Sanctuary that has singled the album out for praise. Citing the format of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as a major influence, and his five-year recovery from alcoholism as direct inspiration, Ross describes Sanctuary as a journey, and one that’s best appreciated as a whole; uninterrupted, from beginning to end.
The journey starts with Inner Sanctuary, and it’s immediately apparent that there’s something very special about this album. From the gentle wash of opening atmospheres, the warmth of marimba (courtesy of percussionist Cormac Byrne) emerges in a rich sound that enjoys even more depth of flavour when violinist Greg Lawson (the man behind The Grit Orchestra) adds his own expertise in what’s very much an Indian classical style. Lawson’s violin blends beautifully with Ross’ first outing on the Indian bamboo flute – the bansuri. In time there’s the quiet addition of a layer of banjo from Ross, providing extra percussive depth as well as harmony. Towards the close the layers of wood and string seem to merge into one unified expression of joy, leading us directly to Happy Place. Happy Place is altogether more sprightly; with the track’s delightful, skipping, whistle melody being joined, in time, by another distinguished guest – Damien O’Kane on banjo, and the pair dance around each other with an infectious exuberance.
The melody behind Happy Place is Signal Hill, which brings us to another aspect of this album. The titles of these individual tracks on Sanctuary, sometimes flowing seamlessly together, at other times book-ending changes in pace or style, are mere sign-posts on the journey. The individual melodies have their own identity (there is only one ‘tune set’ on the album), and it’s those that emerge from the rich background. That background is expertly provided by Steven Byrnes (Acoustic Guitar), Hamish Napier (Piano and Keys), James Lindsay (Bass) and Cormac Byrne (Drums and Percussion); it’s an inspired mix of exceptional talent, deftly tamed and tempered by Andrea Gobbi‘s production. That expertise is best illustrated alongside the more restrained and sombre violin opening of Sense of Family. The melody emerges as a duet via Ross’ cittern and Steve’s guitar, before bansuri and violin bring the same melody from a different direction. It’s almost like a family gathering, with groups arriving at their own pace from along the beach, or from across the hilltops. Family, of course, means far more than relations, as the choice of Wee Gordy’s as the melody for this track confirms. The guitar and percussion that open Protect Yourself invite a more robust pace. Ross’ whistle and Hamish’s keyboard take up the invitation in a tumbling, energetic performance, driven along by fiddle and bass until percussion drops a gear or two for Surroundings; more mellow, but still with a soulful edge and a strong backbeat.
Cittern and a background drone seem to present a limitless backdrop, as Lawson’s fiddle again reaches out to the sub-continent for Beautiful Mysteries. The melody (Cuillin Hills) is undoubtedly Highland, but the extra flavours and nuances add some tempting, exotic eastern spice, lulling the senses before Home In Another Dimension opens with crashing cymbals and wildly cascading fiddle chords. Those beguiling Eastern flavours continue to hold sway, though. Inspired by Ross’ trip to Rajasthan, there’s heat and excitement as the combination of fiddle, cittern, sarod from Soumik Datta and tabla from virtuoso Zakir Hussain climb to a captivating crescendo.
Cloud Surfing marks a stopover on Celtic shorelines with some intricate and fast-paced whistle before Obstacles Of The Mind offers a circular melody with a desert wind on cittern. Fiddle harnesses that breeze and rides it all the way to a spectral wail ahead of Road To Recovery, probably the most life-affirming, positive statement on the album. There has to be significance in the fact that pipes make their first appearance on this track, with its clear Gordon Duncan influence. A percussive opening gives way to a forward-looking, stirring duet of whistle and smallpipes for the melody Ironman. We can probably hazard a guess that this was written to mark Ross’ participation in the annual, gruelling, Ironman Triathlon. Not only did he take part, he even took a breather (probably the wrong word in this context) for an impromptu pipe session! The sheer exuberance of the tabla/pipes combination shines through all the way to Let The Wild Ones Roam, a tune set of near epic proportions that features a return visit from Damien O’Kane for an astounding highland pipes/banjo duet, and mile-wide strings sweeping keyboards along to the album’s conclusion – Escaping Gravity.
Poet and Babelfish member Jock Urquhart provides the lyric and the spoken word vocal over keyboards and atmospheres, for a close that at first seems to resort to self-criticism. Like the rest of this remarkable album, though, it’s ultimately a positive statement from Ross; as the piano, like a summer sunrise, heralds a breaking away from the falsehood of dependency. The initial struggle; to recognise, come to terms with and begin to overcome his addiction on a daily basis, was won five years ago. Sanctuary moves beyond that concept and celebrates an intensified awareness. This is no expression of self-pity, it’s confirmation that this was the right decision, that it was just the beginning…
But I’m starting a new day
Getting hyped to the rhythm
Making the clean decision
A practical proposition for living
Above all I will be giving
Sanctuary has everything you’d expect from Ross Ainslie. Virtuoso whistle performances, stirring pipe tunes, a host of enthusiastic special guests. Sanctuary, though, has something more, something that’s not quite so easily defined. By presenting the album as a single piece of music (and there’s a single-track download available if you buy via Bandcamp https://rossainslie.bandcamp.com/) Ross wants to help us find the same sanctuary in music that he has. While his escape is to write and perform, those of us without those talents can only abandon ourselves to the sound. This album is so rich, so full of life, joining Ross on the journey is an uplifting experience.
In many ways, Sanctuary sounds like the album Ross Ainslie has always wanted to make. The collaborations, especially with Zakir Hussain and Greg Lawson; embracing the creative process in a new, clearer, light. The instruction ‘no skipping tracks!’ on the CD is superfluous – you wouldn’t want to miss a single second.
Although unavoidably introspective in places, Sanctuary is by no means a cathartic album. This is no purge, it’s a celebration. The most arresting and impressive aspects of this album are not the message and the direction the music is coming from – it’s the music itself. The writing and musicianship shine in what is easily Ross Ainslie‘s most impressive album so far.
Sanctuary is available via Bandcamp: https://rossainslie.bandcamp.com/album/sanctuary