ROSS & ALI – Symbiosis II (Symbiosis Records, SYMCD001)

Symbiosis IIIt was only in December that Ross Ainslie’s fantastic solo album, Sanctuary, was released, and he is back again already, this time with Ali Hutton in a very welcome second celebration of their long-standing partnership. Symbiosis II (despite sounding like the title of a particularly difficult contemporary art piece) is a logical successor to their previous album, Symbiosis, and – appropriately – clear lines of connection join the two.

Symbiosis II is dedicated to Hutton’s grandad, who is also the subject of the first tune of the set entitled ‘Grandad’s’. This reflective piece makes a worthy companion, a mirror, to the delicate music box he previously created for his grandma, on the first album’s ‘Grans’.

As with the first album, titles are thematic one-word embodiments of the tunes that lie within (and an apostrophe pedant’s heaven!). The only non-original work on the album is ‘Goretree’, a tender Tommy Peoples cover. A number of the tunes have been specifically commissioned, and are credited accordingly. Whether composed by Ainslie or Hutton, the blending of the individual tunes into a set is never less than sublimely skilful, there’s no sudden lurch, no visible join, it all flows immaculately.

Despite these echoes of the first album, Symbiosis II pushes off into new territory, playing with notional boundaries of traditional music. It’s also definitely more of a “studio” album, given the addition of sound effects and synthesisers. Storm effects on ‘Mick’s’ give way to fast, fierce piping over a dark synth undercurrent, for instance, whilst ‘Birds’ features a clever interplay of whistles and pipes to reinvent the birdsong audio of the intro.

There is some striking, often quite moody, percussion, such as on the terrific ‘Kings’ where it lends an immediacy and a specific modernity to the tune ‘Dine Like Kings’. In the second part, ‘King Of The Mountain’, Patsy Reid’s strings add a dream-like drone, quite unlike the more tense, pulsating backdrop they provide on ‘Mink’. Andrea Gobbi’s thoughtful mixing ensures that nothing becomes overwhelming and a coherent balance is maintained throughout.

The duo’s core sound (Highland pipes, cittern, whistles, guitars and banjo) becomes more richly fleshed out as a result, and they wring a staggering variety of moods from whistles and pipes: lyrical and breathy, writhing and sinuous, beefy and muscular – and every shade in between.

Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton must surely be two of the most prolific young men around in Scottish music at the moment. Working in a dizzying variety of (often award-winning) projects their output never seems to falter. Symbiosis II is another superb addition to the catalogue.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: http://rossandali.co.uk/

Buy from: rossandali.bandcamp.com

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