Cult Heroes No. 49: Exciter
This week, we cross into Canada to hear the tale of the band who were thrash before anyone else, yet never got any credit for that pioneering spirit. This is Exciter, the band whom history (and so many fans of the genre) forgot. Read all other Cult Heroes here.Words: Malcolm Dome
Thrash metal. Wasn’t it really just an American thing? Mainly Bay Area? That’s the way people still look on the whole movement. Bands principally from the San Francisco area taking NWOBHM influences and upping the speed quota considerably, all in a Stateside style. But in reality, this was a global phenomenon, and right in there with the best of the pioneers were Canadians Exciter.
In fact, I’m gonna go further and risk the ire and wrath of everyone by daring to suggest that for a couple of years, Exciter were the best proto-thrashers around. Seriously, before you hurl your Kill ‘Em All blankets, or Haunting The Chapel tea cosies in my direction, just hear me out.
If you’ve never listened to the Canadian trio’s Heavy Metal Maniac debut then you’re missing out on a real experience. Because at the time of its release – 1983 – this was several metres ahead of everyone else getting on track. While I would never doubt the quality of what Metallica and Slayer were doing at that juncture – Megadeth were yet to get off the ground, and it was a touch too early for Anthrax or Exodus to get wider recognition – nonetheless Exciter for me seemed to have the edge. They had a Maiden/Motorhead/Priest hue, but also inveigled this with something from the stuff of Anvil, The Rods and other North American metal bands who had lit up the previous couple of years.
“It’s not for me to say we were better than anyone else,” says drummer/vocalist Dan Beehler. “For me, Slayer and Metallica were a little more flashy than us, but what we did was take Motorhead and Priest and speed them up a bit and make them a little rawer sounding. I’d have to say that we did probably invent speed metal, yes.”
The band started in Ottowa in 1979 (some say 1978, but Beehler insists it was the next year, and he should know).
“I’d been in a band with (bassist) Allan Johnson since I was 15. Now, (guitarist) John Ricci had his own band at the time called Hell Razor, and when our one split up, Allan tried out for John’s band. The drummer who was supposed to come along never showed up, so Al suggested me for the job.”
At the time, Beehler was just 17 years old. But he was already showing a prowess and creativity far in advance of his (lack of) years. Hell Razor soon became Exciter (a name suggested by Beehler’s brother, and inspired by the Judas Priest song of the same title), and the trio wrote the song World War III very quickly. This was picked up by Shrapnel Records supremo Mike Varney, who put it on his seminal compilation US Metal II, released in 1982.
“I’m not sure how Mike got to hear about us, but he was keen to have our band on this compilation. And then he released our first album.”
The songs for that album, the aforementioned Heavy Metal Maniac, were written in 1981, and the band duly demoed the material.
“We had someone send out about 100 cassettes of that demo to people in Europe, just to get a buzz going. To be honest, that recording was full of mistakes and off key singing. We were aiming to go into the studio and completely redo it before it was properly released. But Mike heard the tape and liked it so much he wanted to press it up and put this out as our album! We never wanted that, but he insisted this was the way it should be heard. So that’s what happened.”
In many ways, this raw, flawed and untethered approach is the reason why Heavy Metal Maniac is so revered and admired (well, by me), It was truly a landmark release in slowly emerging lava that was thrash. And this remains one of the best albums of its type ever released. The sheer ferocity is still there, all the more so due to a lack of production.
By 1984, the band had signed to Johnny Z’s label, Megaforce, and released second album Violence & Force, which continued the drive forward. Although this time there was a proper producer (from The Rods’ Carl Canedy) and studio, nonetheless Exciter still sounded more brutally live than anyone else around at the time. They were leading the pack, but dogged by continuous bad luck. For instance, there was to be a raging controversy over the album sleeve, which seemed to depict a black man breaking down a door to violate a white woman. This was more than an error of judgement, it was a disaster, as Beehler readily agrees.
“We had two days to deliver the cover. The idea was to have an arm reaching through the door, pushing on it. But it was never meant to be a black arm. The problem was that too much make-up was used and it came out like that – and it was too late to change. The wrong photo was also used on the back over, It was just a total mess, and left us very embarrassed.”
This was to be just the start of the band’s problems. Because in March/April 1984, the trio were supposed to go on the Hell On Earth tour of the UK. There were 11 dates confirmed, with The Rods headlining, Metallica second on the bill and Exciter opening. But what could have been a landmark tour never happened. Dreadful ticket sales meant the whole thing got pulled.
“Yeah, it seems odd now that Metallica couldn’t sell tickets, but back then they didn’t mean anything like they do now. That would have been such a huge deal for us, and we never fully recovered, to be honest.”
In the end Exciter played one UK show, at the Royal Standard in Walthamstow, London on March 23, doing nine songs; Metallica played The Marque Club in Central London four days later, and got a lot more attention.
Ultimately, Exciter did come over to the UK a couple of times, once supporting Accept, but Beehler genuinely believes that the Hell On Earth cancellation hit them hard. And they also had real trouble touring in America.
“Every time we wanted to cross the border, it was a nightmare, because of the visas we needed. Megaforce were looking after Anthrax and Raven at the time as well, and they didn’t have the same problems, so we got rather sidelined. If we’d been living in America it would have been so different for us. In the end we got lost in the shuffle.”
This was far from the end for Exciter, of course. They’ve since release a further nine studio albums, the latest one being Death Machine last year. But only Ricci now remains from the original line-up, and by the time Long Live The Loud came out in 1985 (the band’s third release), it was clear that the big chance had gone.
Exciter’s important role in the whole thrash metal movement has now been forgotten. They barely ever get mentioned, when the reality is that they were for a time the most important of all those very early bands.
“We were already recording Violence & Force when Metallica were doing Kill ‘Em All. Yet we are the band who never get any recognition when people talk about the roots of this music. We fell by the wayside. Even in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, when they did a thrash family tree, we were left out – and the guy made it, Sam Dunn, is Canadian!
“We began before any of the other bands and it’s pretty sad the way we’ve been erased from history. However, it is slowly changing. People like Phil Anselmo are now giving us credit for what we did, so perhaps there is a little hope that we’ll finally take our rightful place.”
These days, Beehler (who left Exciter in 1993) is working on the first album from his own band (which is simply called Beehler).
“It’s a long away removed from what we did in Exciter. But I’m happy with the way it’s turning out. Hopefully, we’ll get a deal sorted soon and release an album before too long.”
It may be way too late for Exciter to get the success that they deserved and earned. But it’s not too late for them to get retrospective respect as one of the great thrash bands – and certainly as true pioneers. The campaign starts here.
If you need any persuading of Exciter’s pedigree, here goes:
Find out more at www.myspace.com/exciterofficial
For Dan Beehler: www.myspace.com/beehlerheavymetal