Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton – Symbiosis II
Self Released – 20 April 2018
Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton have been playing music together since they were twelve years old. The award-winning multi-instrumentalists and composers grew up together, in piping terms, in Perthshire’s Vale of Atholl Pipe Band; with the late Gordon Duncan as their tutor and mentor. It’s the kind of background that fosters life-long friendship, and a shared musical journey; it’s also the kind of background that leads to some of the finest, the very finest, contemporary trad music in Scotland, or in the UK for that matter. As well the Best Duo award at the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and a nomination for the same award in 2018, Ross & Ali have, between them, a host of awards and nominations from The MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, for their work as a duo, their own projects and for Treacherous Orchestra‘s outstanding second album, Grind (reviewed here). The success enjoyed by their first album as a duet, Symbiosis (reviewed here), meant a follow-up just had to be on the cards, and this month sees the release of Symbiosis II.
The album’s extensive opener sets the tone perfectly, as Kings takes two of Ross’ melodies on an epic and perhaps unexpected journey; introducing the band of friends lending their considerable skill and talent to Symbiosis II. Andrea Gobbi‘s production guides Ross’ cittern through the heady opening of Duncan Lyall‘s bassy synths and Steven Byrnes’ driven percussion before the paired whistles surge through the fast-paced opening reel. Spacious string arrangements from Patsy Reid herald pipes for the second part of the set, adding even more depth of sound, before handing back to Ross’ cittern. There’s an immediate, and emphatic, contrast with the duo’s earlier album, moving on from that rich but gentle acoustic sound to a more galvanised, wider expanse that incorporates complex electronics and string arrangements.
Take, for instance, Ali’s honest and unassuming melody for Love (Meerkat Love). From an opening awash with cosmic atmospheres a peerless whistle duet ensues, backed by the soft splendour of Ali’s tenor guitar. In time the gentle lull of the arrangement gives way to building percussion and soaring strings. It’s wonderful when a melody as beautiful as Meerkat Love is given room to spread its wings. The opening for Mink seems to come straight from Perthshire’s wooded hillsides, as pipes and whistles alternate for this three-part set that bursts into life for the second melody (Sophie The Mink); providing a reminder of the sheer thrill of Ross’ compositions for pipes. There will always be a sweet spot on any album by Ross, Ali, or both, where Gordon Duncan’s influence shines through. Often it’s in a more fiery offering, and I believe this album’s moment comes as Gubbo’s Guffaw closes the set with pipes, guitar, strings and big, beautiful bass synth.
Despite being skilled, and prolific, tunesmiths themselves, Ross & Ali are never shy about paying homage to other great performers. The album’s only cover version is Goretree, from Tommy Peoples‘ gentle and uplifting reel, Beautiful Goretree. There’s a slowing of pace in the rich, low, low whistle around the half-way mark that’s probably the most soothing, transcendent passage on the album. Goretree serves as a timely reminder of what Ross & Ali achieved with Symbiosis; that their entirely justified reputation for spirited arrangements can sometimes overshadow just what they’re capable of when hitting a mellow note.
Heavy weather and electric guitars open Mick’s with another gently tumbling reel on low whistles (The Robertson Lasses) before bagpipes bring the set to life for Mad Mick’s. Patsy’s strings almost seem to double as a brass section among the percussion and electric guitar, and Ross’ banjo can be heard in there too, just as things start to turn a wee bit metal. Glorious.
Those same strings add a touch of drama to the accomplished whistle duet, Birds, but are there in soft support throughout the album, somehow managing to place big, orchestral sounds in a quiet, unassuming corner of the mix. Similarly, Martin O’Neill‘s bodhran is masterfully understated, but the big beats for Ross’ brace of tunes, Action, are irresistible, even before whistle and bass synth carry you along. That same bass sound is employed to great effect towards the close of Doc’s – enhancing the energetic conclusion that emerges from the soft cittern and whistle opening.
Symbiosis II closes with a direct link to its predecessor, in Grandad’s. Whistles then pipes, with the sweetest of strings in between, take on Ali’s melody written for his Grandad, to whom the album is dedicated. It’s a perfect partner to Gran’s, of course, from Symbiosis, and enjoys an extended outing before moving on to the building pace of another of Ali’s melody’s – The Trust. Commissioned by The Gordon Duncan Trust this is a perfect way to close the album; there’s as much excitement and mastery in there as can be mustered from two whistles and two sets of pipes. It’s a wide, exciting, stirring sound that brings together all the contributors to this intoxicating album in a glorious finale.
One of the big questions for fans of Ross & Ali has undoubtedly been how they would follow up on the grace and beauty of Symbiosis, an album that drew on instinct as much as craft. There was a hint of what’s to come in the earlier album’s closing minutes – a shadow of something new and ever so slightly wild. The same sense of commitment and unity shines in Symbiosis II, but the sequel sees Ross & Ali take an entirely different approach. Taking their accomplished blend of acoustic and electronic on ever more intoxicating adventures, Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton have yet again proven themselves to be not only masters of Scottish traditional music but at the very forefront of the movement that continues to breathe new life into that music, inspiring the next generation. Symbiosis was beguiling, Symbiosis II is utterly hypnotic.
SYMBIOSIS II FEATURES
Ross Ainslie – Highland Pipes, Whistles, Cittern and Banjo
Ali Hutton – Highland Pipes, Whistles, Acoustic and Tenor Guitar Duncan Lyall – Moog and Synth
Martin O’Neill – Bodhran and Drums
Steven Byrnes – Drums
Patsy Reid – All Strings
Gus Sicard – Snare Drum
Ross and Ali Upcoming Dates
20 April – An Lantair, Stornoway
21 April – Glenbuchat Hall
22 April – Cyclefest, Isle of Man
23 April – Perth Concert Hall
27 April – Sabhal Mor Ostaig
28 April -Drygate, Glasgow (Full band and string section)
Symbiosis II is out today and can be ordered via http://www.rossandali.bandcamp.com/