When Stewart Bell was just three years old, he woke up in bed completely unable to move, and could only watch in horror as his sister’s clothes floated around his room.
“It was terrifying,” he says now, “like that scene in Mary Poppins. I’ve had sleep paralysis all my life. You’re awake but you can only move your eyes, and your mind’s still in the dream place – it superimposes itself over your room, and it can feel completely real. I’m sure it can account for people who claim to have had out-of-body experiences, or been abducted by aliens.”
The Citizen Cain keyboardist can talk at length about sleep paralysis, time dilation and, above all, lucid dreaming. He’s been an ‘oneironaut’ since he was six, able to participate in his dreams and take control of them from within.
His older brother taught him the knack. “I used to have a recurring dream about a monster in the cupboard at the bottom of our stairs. I told my brother and he said to face up to him next time I saw him. He was a 10-foot-tall beast, and seemed real and terrifying. But next time I shouted, ‘I’m not scared!’ The mood changed, the monster came out of shadows, and it was Sweetums from The Muppet Show! Facing up to that was a profound thing for me.”
So began a lifetime of exploring his inner space, which provides a rich seam of material for his debut solo album. The Antechamber Of Being (Part 1) is a bold, complex and deeply personal rock opera based on his experiences. Opener Decoherence recounts that monster encounter, which also inspired the accompanying children’s book, The Cupboard Of Fear. Bell wrote and illustrated it himself, drawing on his love for Maurice Sendak’s classic Where The Wild Things Are.
“I’ve always wanted to write it and my hope was to help children overcome their nightmares in the same way I did,” he explains, before admitting: “Art’s not my strong point but I brushed up, and learned to use Photoshop from scratch.”
The book’s a charming addition to a heavily progressive musical opus, which draws on Moog-drenched vintage prog, prog metal, avant-garde electronica and aleatory composition. It took Bell 18 months to write.
“That’s quick for me!” he says. “I’d always been told that music should come before lyrics, and in Citizen Cain, with Cyrus [Scott, frontman], that’s how we did it. I did it the other way around and it was much easier. Before, you’d have no sense of what’s happening at any point, but with this I knew where we were going next, when a theme was coming back, how the music should feel to reflect the emotions in the story.”
Much of the music – truly unsettling in parts – defies scales and logic. One particularly tricky passage at the end of Decoherence was nicknamed ‘The Finger Twiddly Bastard’ by Phil Allen. The Cain guitarist plays a character called The Teacher, modelled on Bell’s brother. Bell himself plays Dream Entity Two/Highest Self. Simone Rossetti, from Milanese proggers The Watch, plays The Dreamer, the character based on Bell’s younger self, and Arjen Lucassen appears as Dream Entity One/The Higher Self. “Arjen’s albums have been the only rock operas I’ve heard since listening to Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds as a child,” says Bell.
This cast list gives a taste of the complexity here; Inception is Carry On Camping by comparison. “Arjen got in touch with me to talk about equipment after hearing [Citizen Cain album] Skies Darken,” says Bell. “I asked his advice on recruiting singers, since he’s the expert. But then I just asked him to do it, and he said yes. He became the monster in my cupboard!”
The story is clearly a deeply personal one. Played by talented 23-year-old newcomer Mhairi Bekah Comrie, The Dream Girl is based on a recurring character from Bell’s dream world whose identity overlaps with Bell’s real-life wife, as detailed in the Convergence section (he claims she looked strikingly familiar when they first met).
Elsewhere, a second, terrifying demon also manifests itself, stemming from a period of depression in Bell’s real life, while the birth of his son was almost presaged by the dream that inspired The Shooting Star Child.
“In the dream you can ask your subconscious what’s happening. So once I got angry and shouted at the sky, ‘What’s going on?!’ There was this almighty rumbling noise, the clouds ripped open and a shooting star fell through. I caught it and it was a small plastic heart, which changed into a baby in my palm. A female voice said, ‘Carry it within your heart.’ The baby turned to light and I put it in my chest. I woke up feeling amazing, buzzing with emotion. A few weeks later my wife was pregnant.”
The album’s ambiguous, down-the-rabbit-hole climax sees The Dreamer floating in a state of all-and-nothingness, of pure consciousness, and it has suitably grandiose music to match.
It’s a mind-bending journey alright, but Bell is no flake, and he cuts through all this high‑mindedness with a warm Edinburgher’s laugh. “You don’t have to understand the concept to enjoy the album. I could pretend to know what it meant and become a guru, but I’ll stick with the music!”
With Parts 2 and 3 on the way, and Citizen Cain now no longer a going concern, Bell’s future is decidedly solo.
“It’s been difficult,” he says, “especially writing lyrics, but I’m enjoying this a lot more because it just seems to flow. It’s so personal a story, from the subconscious, and it’s almost like you’re working from the same part of your mind as the music comes from. I’ve felt I was in the zone in the past, but this time I definitely was.”
Some people might think this flow state, tied in with such spiritual, ineffable matters, could be evidence of Bell tapping into a collective unconscious, or even receiving divine inspiration. “I don’t think so,” says Bell, with another puncturing chuckle. “The human mind’s such a mystery in itself. There’s really no need to add any magical thinking.”
The Antechamber Of Being (Part 1) and The Cupboard Of Fear are available now. To order, or for more information, see http://www.citizencain.nl.