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Ross Ainslie Ross Ainslie
Album: Sanctuary
Label: Great White
Tracks: 12

Increasingly-oft-nominated Scottish traditional musician Ross has clearly come a long way on his musical journey from his days playing (pipes, whistles and cittern) in bands like Salsa Celtica and India Alba – and for that matter Treacherous Orchestra (of which he’s a founding member), with some brilliant collaborations with the likes of Ali Hutton and Jarlath Henderson also under his belt; nevertheless, he’s all the while maintained a lively interest in, and penchant for, the more exploratory side of composition too. Sanctuary plays as a continuous suite, and could well almost qualify for the “concept album” tag, for it’s designed to be listened to like a journey. Its ration ale is Ross’s deep-rooted philosophical outlook on life, that music is his own personal sanctuary, always the thing that will pick him up when having a particularly bad day. And we all know that feeling only too well…

Inevitably, being something of a through-composed piece, it travels through many contrasting moods, each with its own special qualities. It’s one of those albums which – like Tubular Bells, a work for which Ross expresses a great admiration – demands one of two kinds of review, either one of a very detailed or techno-musical level or else an attempt to convey its flavour and intent which will then act as a spur for listener investigation. Since I’m not qualified to undertake the former, I trust you will be able to settle for the latter…

Notwithstanding the primarily reflective nature of Sanctuary’s stated ideology, not to mention its backstory (its genesis was as therapy in a recovery from alcoholism), a great deal of its music is really enervating and stimulating – not just its more overtly uptempo sections. Much of its music is strongly influenced by Ross’ travels in India, and not only has Ross learnt to play the bansuri (Indian flute) – hear this, together with Greg Lawson’s Indian-style violin, on the mesmeric opening section Inner Sanctuary – but he’s also carefully selected his supporting musicians to reflect the Indian experience both musically and culturally, recruiting tabla player Zakir Hussain and sarod player Soumik Datta to play alongside Steven Byrnes (guitar), Hamish Napier (keyboards), James Lindsay (bass) and Cormac Byrne (percussion). Guest banjoist Damien O’Kane does a fantastic turn on two tracks – Happy Place and, even better, the exciting, full-steam-ahead pipes-driven set of reels Let The Wild Ones Roam, In contrast, Beautiful Mysteries’ seductive winding melody brings a Moorish tinge, and Obstacles Of The Mind a deliriously tricky Balkan-influenced vibe and Home In Another Dimension moves like a swirling dervish. Klezmer and indo-jazz-celtic fusion also play their part, and each section is profoundly integrated, as much due to the striking togetherness of the participants as due to Ross’s compositional abilities. The final section of the album, Escaping Gravity, is a meditative piece over which Jock Urquhart (of Babelfish) recites a self-penned life-mantra that comes as a surprise, and (for my ears) not an entirely convincing one (in that the spoken word jars after all the instrumental interest of the previous 40 minutes), although with its important theme of self-awareness and positivism it can be viewed as a fitting place to end the whole album, which Ross has exhorted us to listen to as one continuous piece.

Sanctuary is a thoughtful, imaginative artistic statement that often seamlessly juxtaposes and incorporates the poetic and the animated, all in the most invigorating manner. My only problem was spatially identifying, for the purpose of this review, the individual section titles for reference, since the layout on the inner sleeve is ambiguous and the actual sequence could be read in different ways.

David Kidman