The ‘Gap Species’ compilation by the North Sea Radio Orchestra suddenly arrived on Bandcamp without much fanfare. This is incredibly welcome, not least since that this wonderful English band mixing pop and classical music without the bombast that often comes in tow, only have four previous albums to their name.
Even more intriguingly, according to the sparse information supplied, these tracks mainly date from the period after the demise of the Shrubbies in 1998 and leading up to Craig Fortnam forming the NSRO whose first album arrived in 2006.
These humble beginnings are probably easiest to spot in the two “organ miniatures” that feel like the result of Craig just noodling around on keyboards until he found what he was looking for. But what he found turned out to be the pot at the end of the rainbow. Even these simple pieces combine a gentle surface with an strong melodic depth that has been their hallmark ever since. Tellingly, an organ miniature also opened the NSRO debut album.
Next, ‘The Flower’ goes for a much fuller orchestration. But Sharon Fortnam’s vocals keeps the pure feel of the opening piece and adds an ebb and flow on top. Originally the opening track of their first single and then reappearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here is most likely earlier, since the organ takes on the role of the strings on the later versions.
Then, ‘Nest of Tables’ starts almost like another organ miniature but then adds more instruments, that build to the characteristic NSRO sound.
That sound is then taken to its upper limit on ‘Move Eastward Happy Earth’ with the addition of a big choir. Initially appearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here seems slightly slower in tempo, yet is shorter overall. There is also more distortion on the choir, giving it an even more numinous feel. A song for wintry nights that is so good it makes you long for wintry nights!
From track five onwards nothing has, to my knowledge, appeared anywhere else before. And there are quite a few gems, such as ‘The Lintwhite’ with Sharron’s vocals to the melodic fore. Like many tracks by the NSRO it seems rather simple the first time you hear it but gets increasingly complex on each consecutive listen. I have no idea how they pull that off!
There is also a trio of tracks featuring the inimitable James Larcombe from Stars In Battledress. He also appears in many other related bands, including the collaboration with Craig Fortnam on the amazing second Arch Garrison album ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’. He opens ‘Stations Green’ with some wonderfully odd organ notes and gradually hands over the melody to the violins; on ‘L.U.C.A.’ his melodic counterpart is a vibraphone; and finally on the title track ‘Gap Species’ he is up against clarinet, bassoon and oboe.
Speaking of woodwind, other highlights include the neo-classically oriented ‘Music for Two Clarinets and Piano’ and the the ten minute chamber piece ‘Lyonesse’ with violin and piano to the fore. Not something you expect to find on a pop record exactly, but at this point you are already so taken by the sheer beauty of the NSRO music that you just follow along.
‘Gap Species’ holds together very nicely as an album and certainly is no gap filler. There is an understated sadness throughout that makes me think about Robert Wyatt – an artist whom the NSRO have spent much time covering, especially live, but also on record. The presence of Cardiacs bandleader Tim Smith is also clearly felt. Not only because he has mixed most of this, recorded the vocals and contributes some backing vocals of his own, but also in the moods conjured up.
This album will definitely be in my top list for 2019. Now, how do we make sure this eventually gets a physical release? This absolutely is the kind of album I want to hold in my hand while listening!