ROSS AINSLIE – Sanctuary (Great White Records, GWR005CD)

SanctuaryIf there’s a more intensely personal album release this year than Ross Ainslie’s third album, Sanctuary, it would be hard to find. It’s a conceptual piece, a celebration of five sober years – no mean feat in the musician’s world, where it’s always pub o’clock somewhere.

Ainslie’s well-known as a champion of the broader context of Scottish instruments and for his work with musicians of an international background, such as India Alba, amongst very many others. So, it’s no surprise that the musical influences here are equally wide-ranging, with its eastern palette of sounds embracing a distinctly Scottish heart.

He’s also keen on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, apparently, and aimed to produce in ‘Sanctuary’ a similar kind of conceptual soundscape. So, don’t put it on shuffle. Listen to the complex, layered sounds as a continual flow, as intended, and it will repay in spades.

The titles of the twelve tracks on the album (and surely this number is no coincidence?) indicate key milestones, signposts along a determined route, with the calming, beautiful opener ‘Inner Sanctuary’ perhaps the heart and soul of the album. A gently shushing shoreline is overlaid with a tender, swooping elegiac fiddle (a stunning performance by Greg Lawson throughout) with Ainslie managing to extract the inner Scot from the bamboo tones of the Indian bansuri.

Finding a personal retreat has been essential for Ainslie, and he’s found it in his music: his mastery of his instruments is simply outstanding. Whistles brightly dance in ‘Protect Yourself’ and ‘Cloud Surfing’, then are overlaid by frenetic piping in ‘Road To Recovery’, which races along over a choppy guitar and tabla zing. On ‘Surroundings’, his breathing just audible beneath the seamless phrasing of this complex theme, is a reminder of Ainslie’s skilled control – and not just of his flying fingers.

Each musician makes a vital contribution to the flow of the overall sound, each layer builds up into a cohesive whole. There are so many wonderful and talented musicians playing here, but Damien O’Kane’s fierce banjo deserves mention, as a perfect foil for the complex celtic knot of whistles on ‘Happy Place’ and the exuberant highland pipes of ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’. Tabla player Zakir Hussain and Soumik Datta on sarod lend Indian overtones to the juddering, descending motif of ‘Home In Another Dimension’, a surprisingly rocky track coming after the delicate eastern influences of ‘Beautiful Mysteries’.

The final piece, ‘Escaping Gravity’ an atmospheric poem with a vaguely oriental feel, expresses the conscious choice of sobriety. Its final phrase “Escaping gravity in my inner sanctuary” loops us right back to the album’s beginning, and reminds us that this is a set of mantras to be repeated every day. It’s what “one day at a time” means.

This album’s genesis is as inspiring as its form is delightful. It has a maturity, mellowness and a sense of peace, but it’s also a testament to some real personal grit. Learning to be with yourself and accepting yourself, flaws and all, is no mean feat. Turning such a challenging experience into a warm, accessible piece of music is altogether another level of amazing.

Su O’Brien

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