Sunday Old School: Exciter
You know you're old school when you've had an album on Shrapnel records and can count eleven full-length albums among your repertoire. This is where the story of Canadian thrashers Exciter begins - way back in 1978. They began as Hell Razor and changed their name out of homage to the Judas Priest song and put out a demo, getting the attention of the legendary Mike Varney. He was the head of Shrapnel records, a label that catered to the forefathers of American thrash and all the classic guitar heroes. Mike put Exciter's track "WWIII" on his second compilation, "US Metal Volume II" in 1982. The debut, "Heavy Metal Maniac," followed on the label in 1983. This album already had great hype as a nine-song tape traded overseas, and ten thousand metalheads had put in an order for it upon its release.
Thirty plus years later and Exciter is still cranking out loud, raw thrash. This sound of theirs made them the brashest band in the thrash underground back in the early eighties, giving these Ottawa natives a chance to break out into the big time in 1984. They decided to part company with Shrapnel since Mike Varney couldn't commit to putting them on a tour. John Zazula signed them to the epic label Megaforce, adding them to that roster of bands that already included Metallica and Raven. Their second album, "Violence and Force," spawned a successful series of concert dates with Anthrax and Mercyful Fate. This album featured that classic hit "Pounding Metal" - an anthem in every old metalhead's collection. The move to Megaforce may have been a mistake, since that label didn't do much to promote its other bands besides Metallica.
Then a series of interruptions and distractions starting sidelining Exciter's legacy. They signed with their third label (in so many releases) Music For Nations and set about recording "Long Live the Loud" with Guy Bidmead. Instead of the raw power thrash signature sound of theirs, it had a more powerful metal sound. It might have threw a few fans for a loop with the difference in direction, but it was nonetheless a good album. So was the three song EP "Feel the Knife," which followed on its heels.
After tours with Accept, Motorhead and Megadeth, guitarist John Ricci left the fold and was replaced by Brian McPhee. John had done so because of a change in the musical direction the band was taking. He kept in touch during this period and to this day regrets leaving for that interval. Exciter's sound further evolved into a more melodic one by the time "Unveiling the Wicked" was unleashed, and the shake-ups in the ranks weren't over by a long shot. Singer/drummer Dan Beehler decided to just drum, handing the vocals over to Rob Malinati for 1988's "O.T.T." release (on Maze Music). I often wonder why they didn't just get another drummer and have Dan sing. Fans were accustomed to Beehler, and changing a vocalist can be a shock. However, having a drummer/vocalist is not a great combination. The band lacks a frontman in the live environment (see Zoetrope or the Mentors' early days).
By 1991, we were to see the last semi-original line-up of Exciter when Ricci returned on guitar and Dan came back as vocalist. (John had formed the band Blackstar during this interval). They understandibly focused on their earlier material when they toured Canada, although they still found time to record one new song, "Born to Kill," for the Capitol Punishment compilation. These series of concert dates over the next couple of years were put on the band's first live album "Better Live than Dead," which came out in 1993. By then, they had already been signed to their fourth record label, Noise, for a year and had released their sixth studio album, "Kill After Kill." After touring with Rage in support of it, they dropped off the map for a few years.
If Exciter had lost momentum before, they really would now when they re-emerged in '96 with a major line-up schism. Dan had left for good as vocalist a few years earlier, and John actually waited two years to audition someone in the hopes Dan would rethink things. John Ricci was now the only original member in the ranks - but he was back to stay. In fact, he's been the glue that has held Exciter together throughout most of these years. Canadians received the line-up on the seventh album "The Dark Command" (on fifth label Osmose) pretty well when it came out in '97, which lead to a tour with Flotsam and Jetsam and Anvil. John worked hard to return the band to its initial roots sound and recruited members who agreed with his vision.
But, this was a long period of upheaval. The new vocalist Jacques Belanger (who was vocalist in John Ricci's other band, Blackstar) left and came back once, and the bass position was vacated by two guys until Rob "Clammy" Cohen joined. All during this dawn of the millenium, there was a revolving door of musicians during the recording of "Blood of Tyrants" and its follow up "New Testament." John chalks up all this upheaval to many of the musicians not being committed enough to deal with all the ups and downs of the music industry. By 2004, the line-up finally stabilized and settled into a group that could work with each other. It took only eight years to get to that point...the last piece of unfinished business would happen in 2006. After heading out to numerous festivals and touring with Steel Attack, Belanger quit as vocalist after the Keep It True VI festival commitments.
After numerous tryouts, Ricci and the band welcomed Kenny "Metal Mouth" Winter into the fold. Unlike past members, Kenny hailed from New York. He had to make one-day treks from Brooklyn to Ottawa to record with the band. The big factor for John Ricci, who has final say in the band, was the chemistry (besides his vocal range). He realizes Exciter lost a lot of momentum with all the line-up changes in the previous decade, and he's worked hard to restore the popularity of the band. He likes Kenny's "New York attitude" and he makes the band laugh. You can tell the band likes him, for they reworked a live set when he had the flu - removing that vocal exercise of a song "Rot the Devil King."
Finally in 2008, Exciter's tenth studio album "Thrash Speed Burn" saw the light of day after being pushed back a few times. Ricci liked how it came out, since it sounded like it was recorded in a garage. (Ironically, it was the only album since 1990 that wasn't produced by Manfred Leidecker. He is a bassist who understands Exciter better than anyone, and he happened to be remodeling his studio during the recording of this album). He aims for a raw and aggressive sound in the music, the way punk bands would record three riffs with such energy.
John thinks some bands play so fast nowadays that they lose that quality. Whether the production and budget are high or low, Exciter aim for that "cult" garage sound. "Thrash Speed Burn" really won over many old school fans once again just for that reason, garnering the band the most tour offers of any of their albums. John credits this to the loyalty of the Canadian fans and the fact that an old school sound is more popular in Europe than the in the trendy tastes of some of the American crowd.
Exciter's eleventh studio album, "Death Machine," came out in 2010. How does John Ricci feel about everything when he reflects back? He has made the ambivalent comments one would expect. He realized that if Exciter had been an U.S. band back in the day, they might have gotten the right push to mainstream success that the Big Four and others are now enjoying. John has also stated that even if he doesn't become commercially successful he'll be happy, so long as he can do what he wants. He won't change. You can understandibly sense frustration in him, 34 years later, that he never rightfully achieved the profile of some of the musicians who started at the same point as he did so many years ago.
Since the release of "Death Machine" (on the band's sixth record label Massacre), Exciter continues true to its sound and is booking gigs left and right since signing with Jeff Keller Mgt. (Destruction). John is a sales person at a music store and a restorer of classic cars during his down time. He has three songs in the can already for Exciter's twelfth studio album - a process in which he records fifteen and keeps ten. He has said that just like with every Exciter album, there will be a song with a slow doom riff, and this one will be no different.
He still gets questions about Dan Beehler all the time, a subject he avoids. Beehler fronts his own band these days (with fellow Exciter alumnus Allan Johnson), having just released the Beehler album "Messages to the Dead." Ricci says that Beehler left the band sixteen years ago, and people need to either accept it or not. Exciter is working with Neuron Films to do a documentary, which may see a release in a couple of years. The band was also featured in two scenes of the Tom Cruise film "Rock of Ages," once in a Heavy Metal Maniac poster and another on a sold-out marquee.
Exciter has been busy since 2012 dawned. They have already played the 70,000 Tons of Metal flotilla in January and have some concert dates scheduled in February with VoiVod. Then they head to Europe in March. They have stayed true to their underground thrash roots, prolific in the amount of music they have released and deserve some success after the sheer amount of years they have in the scene. The processions of break-ups and line-up changes tend to make some people forget. A lot of us haven't, though.
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