Whether it’s working in the spotlight, side of stage or behind the scenes, every artist has their comfort zone – that place where they thrive because the level of visibility involved is a good fit. And, however rewarding (or relieving) any change in exposure might be, it requires some recalibration.
That’s something Will Foster understands. The multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and arranger first made his name in the mid-’90s as the bass player in eccentric art-pop band Delicatessen and subsequently, as pianist with the Top 40 single-scoring Lodger. But as the millennium turned, he found himself increasingly in demand as an accomplished hired hand: Foster wrote string arrangements for acts under Simon Raymonde’s guardianship, was a member of Martina Topley Bird’s touring band, toured for a year as keyboardist with the Brett Anderson/Bernard Butler reunion vehicle, The Tears and played the same on-the-road role for Anderson’s solo debut. Since 2008, he’s been regularly touring and recording as keyboardist with The Fratellis. Now, however, he’s stepping out of the shadows and releasing his solo debut, as Scatter Factory.
Self-titled, it’s an instrumental album with a strong filmic pull that makes great use of field recordings and treated sound, a compellingly abstract set piece in nine parts that’s too vivid to be tagged ‘ambient’. It nods vaguely to late-period Talk Talk (“a constant influence,” Foster admits) and David Sylvian (“I can’t think of anything I don’t like about his work”), but also to Neu!, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Johns Carpenter and Barry, and is as ominous and unsettling as it is also light-filled and lyrical.
Many fragments of the final tracks had a previous life. From 2012-14, when he was between touring and recording commitments with The Fratellis, Foster started writing pieces of music for short films and theatrical adaptations, submitting them to the various companies who’d sent out briefs with the hope of securing commissions. Nothing came of that, but during the process, Foster realised there was a thread running through his work. “Whether I was writing something for a kids’ theatre production about a superhero or an out-and-out short horror film, there would definitely be something those pieces of music had in common,” he explains. “And I think that was an unsettling quality. Everything I do musically ends up melancholic, somehow. In the end, I thought, well, maybe I should just try and be me and see what happens.” What happened – when Foster took a few sections of those languishing submissions and used them as launching points for something larger and more cohesive – was Scatter Factory.
Roughly two years in the making, it was recorded and produced by Foster at his home in Oxford. He played every instrument and laboured over processing the tracks’ numerous component parts and final edits. With This Mortal Coil’s Filigree & Shadow at the back of his mind and his fondness for puzzles and subversion activated, he reconfigured some sounds from individual tracks to use again elsewhere, “so you can’t quite work out if you have heard it before.” Foster reckons if the album has a theme, then “it’s probably ‘what’s going on?’” – an expression of existential bewilderment that’s both personal and universally resonant.
One of the record’s many strengths is its open-endedness and ‘Sheepish Hello’, ‘Spartan Missile’ and ‘Not There Yet (And It’s Getting Dark)’ are especially notable. The first is a terrific mix of synth-generated interstellar spookiness and pastoral piano calm, rendered more mysterious by its title. ‘Spartan Missile’ (it’s the name of the horse that came second in the 1981 Grand National) conjures a tantalisingly non-specific nostalgia without a whiff of sentimentality, while ‘Not There Yet…’ uses a recording of Foster walking his panting spaniel to the park as the odd car swishes by, adding a brooding synth thrum and a pitched loop of his 18-month-old son, wailing “park” and repeatedly hitting one note on the keyboard. It’s a masterstroke of understated dread.
Scatter Factory is a non-prescriptive record that poses more questions than it provides answers and artist James Marsh, who’s renowned for his Talk Talk album covers has responded to this with a striking, retro-futurist graphic design. It’s bold and dynamic in a way that befits someone flying solo for the first time, even if they are obscured by clouds. As Foster neatly sums up his shift in position: “I’m still in the background – but now there’s nobody else there with me.”