I don’t do drugs. Expanding the horizons of my consciousness with chemicals has never seemed as interesting as expanding my consciousness with more corporeal, external media. But, if I did want to smoke DMT or rub mushrooms on my temples until time becomes a visible substance, I’d do it to Ross Ainslie’s Vana.
Back in September, your faithful piping newshounds here at Bagpipe.News reported that trad. stalwart and surprisingly tall fellow, Ross Ainslie would be producing a new solo album named Vana. The album is now out and available to you here: https://rossainslie.bandcamp.com/album/vana
Vana is the fourth album from Ross, funded by audience support from a campaign on indiegogo.com. The source material for this record or at least the central concept stems from Ross’ time at the Vana Wellness Retreat in India. Have a read about what Ross says about the conception here in the way-back-machine.
The crew on this record is a veritable Who’s Who of musicians based in Scotland not just from the trad. scene but from other idioms too. The list below is an impressive line-up of performance skills and arrangement styles.
Sanctuary Band comprises:
Ross Ainslie – Whistles, Cittern, Highland Pipes, Small Pipes, Bansuri,
Greg Lawson – Fiddle
Paul Towndrow – Sax
Steve Byrnes – Acoustic Guitar and Drums
Hamish Napier – Piano and Harmonium
James Lindsay – Bass
Malcom Jones – Electric Guitar (track 9 and 10)
Duncan Chisholm – Fiddle (track 8)
Steve Cooney – Acoustic Guitars and Bass (track 8)
Damien O’Kane – Banjo (tracks 1, 6 and 7)
Graeme Stephen – Electric Guitar (track 4)
Shahbaz Hussain – Tabla (11 and 12)
Matthew Noone – Sarod (track 11 and 12)
Jock Urqhuart – Words (track 13)
Cormac Bynre – Percussion
Eric Alfonso – Congas
Vana washes up on the shores of our mind’s eye with the frankly sexy ‘Careless Whisper’ vibes of ‘Science of Life’. This opener comes to a boil about halfway through and establishes a level of groove that we will return to again and again on this album. The smoothness of Paul Towndrow’s sax playing, and Ross’ breathy whistle are complimented excellently by the plunking of Damien O’Kane’s banjo. ‘Science of Life’ kind of reminds me of the music you would get on a mid-1990s Sega Rally Game.
Skip about five minutes in and you’ll hear what I mean –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNcJNw5n748
‘Wounded Forest’ is a bit of a journey. Again, the whistle is our dominant instrument with soft and intricate layers rolling and flowing in green ribbons of sound in every hew. The structural ideas on this track are some of the simplest on the record but offer the listener new aspects upon repeated listening.
Reprising a theme that is found on one of Ross’ earlier collaborative efforts from the Treacherous Orchestra’s 2012 release, Origins, ‘Rapa Nui’ is just as soulful and sultry as we all remember with a flavour change reinvigorating interest in an old favorite and reminding us of what we all enjoyed so much in the first place. Like the first time you tried a mug of hot chocolate with a little salt in it.
Tumbling down the keys of a piano in a cocktail bar somewhere in the depths of space we slow dance with The Green Fairy in ‘Absinthe in Arayna’. The melody caresses the ears, breathy and romantic; the sax again being the ‘male’ voice against the ‘feminine’ of the whistle. A sense of climbing and descending forms the shell around the track, warm and wistful to begin with but as the tone of the guitar shifts into a light overdrive we feel a sense of intensity and direction form sending our male and female voices onward through the theme.
The eastern tonality sensed throughout this album rises from the warm, womb-like dark under the bed sheets like a tentacled leviathan from the ocean. ‘Emergency Operation’, hammering home in half time percussion a sense of worry and dread, the sweeping tones of the theme sway back and forth like the sirens of an ambulance through a dream. Ross finally gets a bagpipe on this record. An electric bagpipe made to sound digital. Frankly, I’m on the fence about it as a choice but I do believe it suits the track and is a bold idea. And I support bold ideas.
Leaping onto the next track ‘Cross of Threads’ bounces a staccato theme from the outset before unfurling the whistle/ banjo in sheets of dripping gold relentlessly. The use again of those eastern tonalities switch us from the red/ tan of the desert into the blue/black of an open night sky. Pumping up and up in intensity, traveling home to a melodic theme we would more associate with Scots/ Irish trad music. When the big hit comes in this piece, it is a welcome release and turns the track 90˚ carrying the listener through a green door to a different atmosphere.
Uplifting and flowing the big “sitcom set is the Benbecula” feel of ‘Happy Hideaway’ pulls us into a positive and comforted feel. Again, Paul Towndrow’s smooth tones lay on top of this busy leaping and falling track like the silky marzipan over the delicious Battenburg of the piece.
‘Gift of the Gods’. It’s nice. I made a cup of tea and went for a pee. It’s good, aye *shrug*.
Crackling and whistling from an instructional tape the great John Wilson sings us ‘Wisdom in the Chaos’. Showing his range of understanding and legendary musical intuition, John’s back of the throat tones are confident and expressive. Safe and comforting. Ross delivers the theme on a solid pipe and when both voices are locked in together there is a sense of depth, history and majesty that although this piece is not strictly ceòl mòr, echoes with the ermine robes and crown of office The Big Music demands.
The elaborate ‘Hope in the Chaos’ resounds with technical expression reminiscent of Ross Ainslie’s mentor, Gordon Duncan. The piece’s style will remind listeners of pieces from Gordon’s 2003 album Thunderstruck like the blue force ghost of Obi-Wan at Ross’ shoulder.
The tribute to Vana starts our descent down the mountain and rebirth. ‘Vanavasa’ is lead by Ross’ trademark groove on fiddle and guitars, the plonk of the tabla lifting highlights of percussion throughout.
‘Concrete Jungle’ takes the theme from ‘Vanavasa’ and develops it. Smooth and dynamic, the creamy, heartwarming tones that now sum up the music on Vana being cooked down and spiced up with strings and dizzying ascending passages.
Finally, ‘Maybe another time’ is the Rime of the Ancient Mariner on Vana. It stands seven minutes and 18 seconds as the encircling wall around Vana on which Ross has penned the inspirational concepts and feelings that drove the creation of this record and encapsulate the composer’s personal journey. Jock Urquart reads the eulogy for the pain the composer has dealt with and invites feelings of hope, brotherhood, and care to all before the track crescendos and as quick as it rises begins its fall into the smoking embers of silence.
All in all, Vana is a good journey. I enjoyed a lot of aspects and I think there is a ton of relisten value here. A hulk of a record, the shortest track is two minutes 42 seconds, and this stands as one of my two critical thoughts: There’s a good 45 seconds at least that could be trimmed from just about every track. If Vana has a detraction, it’s that its swollen with ideas and sometimes that comes across as self-indulgent. Frankly, I’d have shelved two tracks in the middle of the album and released them as a separate EP. Nothing wrong with any of it but I felt the whole thing stretched on and by the time we hit ‘Vanavasa’ I was a bit tired.
I listened to this album almost solely through earphones since it was released on October 30. The production style is tight and professional. I’d even go so far and say it’s too tight and some room space, which does make appearances on tracks like ‘Wisdom in the Chaos’, would have been good. There were points where it felt like the ensemble were playing the track on a stage the size of a ten pence piece buried in the centre of my skull.
On my rating scale of 1-5 (1 being unlistenable garbage to 5 unattainable brilliance) I’m giving Vana a 4½. It’s a somewhat long album but with great playing and lots of interesting music, Vana is well worth your time.
Don’t do drugs.
• Vana is available at : https://rossainslie.bandcamp.com/album/vana