The Music of Citizen Cain & Stewart Bell

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Prog Magazine – UK

PROG-Article-MagazinePersonal demons, a dearth of suitable musicians and an apocalyptic worldview. While Citizen Cain’s latest album is their finest, it’s probably also their last!
Glass half full: Nick Shilton – Prog Magazine

After years of media neglect, scorn and downright derision, most progressive rock bands leap at the chance of exposure in a major music publication. Since the advent of Prog, the vast majority of progressive musicians have welcomed he opportiunity to be included within these pages. Indeed many lower profile bands have clamoured for inclusion.

However Citizen Cain have seldom fallen into the category of ‘most progressive rock bands’. By turns revered and castigated over the years for certain Genesis similarities, the Scottish band has always been somewhat enigmatic. But for this feature frontman, lyricist and bassist/vocalist Cyrus required considerable cajoling from bandmate Stewart Bell and the band’s label to participate in an interview. Similar persuasion was necessary to elicit some current photographs of the trio, who are completed by guitarist Phil Allen. Such an ambivalent attitude towards publicising his creative work is symptomatic of Cyrus’s approach to his band generally. At first sight this is decidedly puzzling, not least given that Skies Darken is without doubt the most accomplished of the Scottish trio’s six studio albums. It may also prove to be their swansong. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

No less than a full decade has elapsed since Citizen Cain’s last album Playing Dead. While Cyrus’s lengthy sleeve notes for Skies Darken display his creative brain fully engaged, the reality behind the band’s absence is considerably more prosaic: “It just takes us a long time to do anything; we don’t make a living from this so it is really just in our spare time, to be honest I spent the last eight years spending the fortune we made on the last album,” he observes sardonically. “We would have made millions from the last album if we’d charged about £1o,000 per CD but you can’t get away with doing that…” With only six albums recorded over a 30-year career, their output has never been prolific.

Cyrus confesses that personal problems delayed Skies Darken. “This album really should have been finished around 2005, but during the recording of the last album I was dealt a severe blow — the world gave me a kick in the balls and knocked me out for a bit. I found it quite difficult getting round to writing.” Personal issues aside, writer’s block also raised a further hurdle. “Some days there was no inspiration. I would sit down and there would be nothing there — it was just like the creative part of me was not turned on for a while.” But happily in 2006 Cyrus’s mindset improved. “When I stopped fighting the dark place that I was in it just disappeared. It was like coming out into a new world after all that time in almost a parallel universe. But it is quite a nice universe that T find myself in now; I have managed to find a woman that has got enough patience to put up with me,” he laughs. Playing Dead was not a commercial success by any means and is testament to the challenges of the independently released album. “We tried to go it alone and release it ourselves in conjunction with the guy that runs the studio that we use.” Lacking significant contacts to push the album significantly hampered the album’s circulation, and its profile was further nixed by the band’s overall failure to promote it. “I would not say we are businessmen by any stretch of the imagination,” Cyrus continues. “So the album just got left once it was done.” Which one could argue rather wastes all the effort involved in making an album; but Cyrus begs to differ. “I simply enjoy the writing and the recording, but I have never really been interested in taking it much further.” Indeed for Cyrus, Citizen Cain is a labour of love and he cares little for how widely his music is heard. “I derive a lot of pleasure from Citizen Cain, but apart from that it does not matter if not a soul in the world ever hears us. I am quite happy once an album is finished and Iran listen to it. It would be nice to sell a few thousand, but it has never been that important.” The commercial reality for so many progressive musicians dawned early on for Cyrus. “I realized I was not going to make a lot of money playing this type of music, and accepted that it was going to be pretty much an expensive hobby.”

Now signed to Festival Records — who are also re-releasing the band’s back catalogue this summer — Cyrus’s disinterest in commercial success remains unwavering, despite believing that Skies Darken is his best work. “Maybe because of what I have been through in the last few years it is coming out in the music. I felt the last couple of albums started to lack melody. It was getting really technical.” Skies Darken however sees a strong return to memorable melodies, as well as Cyrus thriving on adversity and leveraging his personal travails for lyrical inspiration. “There is a lot of emotional disturbance coming through, which I think helps with the lyrics as well.” So far so good, but Citizen Cain’s continuing existence hangs in the balance. The band has not played live this millennium and that situation seems unlikely to change, with Cyrus citing the difficulty in recruiting other players, with “being in the middle of Scotland” the main impediment towards finding suitable talent to round out the band. “We have struggled for years to find musicians,” he adds. “Two or three albums ago we started looking for personnel, but it was a real struggle. Trying to get people to play anything outside of 4/4 was a problem. So we ended up having to dolt all ourselves, and we were lucky to get hold of Phil for Playing Dead and this one.” It is a moot point however whether recruitment will pose a practical problem for much longer however, as Cyrus reveals that Skies Darken may represent Citizen Cain’s last album — although he and Bell are both planning solo releases. “I have grown old within this band,” he points out. “I started this in 1982 and many years have passed. Everything that I have ever wanted to say lyrically has been said now. I want to start something new, sons it stands it looks like this is the last Citizen Cain album.” If Cyrus keeps to his word — and his non-conformist approach to his craft suggests that he will — Skies Darken sees Citizen Cain going out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Skies Darken is out now on Festival Records.