Chris “Woody High” MacDermott‘s Spine of Overkill column just keeps getting better. This month, the Mighty High guitarist/vocalist takes a look at the roots of speed metal, focusing in on Canadian trio Exciter‘s 1983 debut album, Heavy Metal Maniac.
EXCITER – HEAVY METAL MANIAC
Just about every day I wish I wasn’t so fascinated by music history, but every single day I’m grateful to be a heavy metal maniac. What do these two things have in common? An awful lot when it comes to Ottawa’s heaviest export, Exciter. They’re often lumped in as “also rans” alongside Metallica, Slayer, etc., but the fact is that they predate just about everyone in the North American speed metal sweepstakes. They recorded a demo in 1980 that contained a song called “World War III” that eventually wound up on Shrapnel Records 1982 compilation US Metal Volume II. The first Metal Massacre compilation with Metallica on it also came out in 1982 but I’m not sure which one came first. Throughout 1982 Metallica was writing their first batch of originals and releasing them on demos alongside covers of obscure New Wave Of British Heavy Metal covers. Exodus, Slayer, Overkill and Anthrax were all doing mainly covers and Megadeth didn’t exist yet. Meanwhile, in the summer of ’82, Exciter were recording demos that would eventually be released as their debut album by Shrapnel in January 1983. Also in the summer of 1982 they got the chance to open for Black Sabbath in their hometown. Kill ‘Em All is often mentioned as the album the really kicked off the speed/thrash/whatever you want to call it movement of the ‘80s but for my money, the prize should go to Exciter. Distribution for this kind of metal was hard to come by, the general metal audience wasn’t ready for it and the label didn’t have enough resources to put the band on the road so most people discovered Exciter about a year later as the market started to get crowded.
Now that the history lesson’s over, Heavy Metal Maniac stands up as one of the heaviest, most belligerent documents of its time. A gust of spooky wind opens the album as a prelude to the brief instrumental “The Holocaust.” At least I think it’s wind. It’s hard to tell from all the tape hiss on top of the hiss coming out of John Ricci‘s guitar amps. An explosion ends the song and piledrives you straight into the metal anthem “Stand up and Fight.” Fast, furious and completely balls to the wall. John Ricci‘s guitar sounds like a swarm of distorted bees rounded out by Allan Johnson‘s thudding bass work. Dan Beehler‘s double bass drumming takes your head off but it’s his frantic screaming that really seals the deal. Any band with a singing drummer gets extra points, but the tally is ridiculously high when you’re hammering out beats like this. When it comes to frenzied metal preaching, Beehler‘s work here is up there with Paul Baloff on the classic Bonded by Blood album. The song “Heavy Metal Maniac” is even more inspired. The opening lyrics “Hey little honey come along with me/Won’t you take a free ride,” not only references Edgar Winter but gets you revved up for the chorus of “I’M A HEAVY! METAL! MANIAC!! STAND BACK!!!” I remember clearly listening to this song in my bedroom and being inspired to do more than just headbang. The music compelled me to jump around like an idiot and it felt good running straight into the walls. This was long before I ever saw “moshing” at metal shows. How do they follow up those two speed metal classics? By reminding everyone that only playing fast isn’t heavy at all. “Iron Dogs” starts off with one of the most crushing metal riffs of all time. I’m convinced that a lot of the New York hardcore bands studied this song for use in their “mosh” parts. For a bunch of dudes from Canada they capture a bleak urban feel as they unfold the horror story of “IRON DOGS EAT THE CITY!!!” When John Ricci switches gears to a faster riff you can hear him almost stumble but there’s no way he was going to stop the take and punch it in. This is raw meat metal at its finest. “Mistress of Evil” wraps up Side Heavy in fine molten style.
Flipping it over to Side Metal, you are under attack. Literally. Dan Beehler unloads a killer double bass fill before the band erupts on the pummeling thrasher “Under Attack.” They try to restrain themselves a bit on the intro of “Rising of the Dead” but quickly things get fast ‘n’ furious. About halfway through a nice “Children of the Grave”-style speed boogie emerges. The seven-minute “metal ballad” of “Black Witch” is interesting. A year later on Ride the Lightning, Metallica would include a seven-minute “metal ballad” called “Fade to Black” that bears some similarities to “Black Witch.” I’m sure Lars was keeping close tabs on the competition. I doubt Metallica intentionally ripped off Exciter but both songs share a lot of common roots. “Cry of the Banshee” gets things back to full on thrashing. Starting off with another classic Beehler drum intro, John Ricci‘s tortured Strat screams out another killer riff. They must have been proud of the lyrics to this one because they blew up one of the lines to print on the back cover – “When twilight burns across the sky you’d better run and hide/The beast will roar from deep inside.”
As great as the music is, encountering Heavy Metal Maniac in a record store back then was even better. If you were looking for full-on metal, you knew this one wasn’t false advertising. You couldn’t hear this stuff anywhere so you had to go by gut instinct. Sometimes you’d see a killer album cover, take a chance and it would be kinda weak. There’d be keyboards, too many ballads or some horrible Geoff Tate-like vocalist. Not with Exciter. The front cover is an arm with studded leather wristbands and a tattoo of a heart with the word “METAL.” The hand is holding a switchblade and stabbing a Marshall speaker cabinet. The Exciter logo and words Heavy Metal Maniac are in blood red and in a font easy enough for anyone to scribble on a desk, wall or book cover. Flip it over and you see three metal maniacs covered in denim, leather and hair. Their friends and roadies thanked on the back cover have cool nicknames like T.N.T., Clint, Headbanger and Crank It Up. The guys in Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear don’t hang out with anyone named Crank It Up. I’ve never actually looked at one of their records. Maybe their sound guy is named Turn It Down for all I know. I also can’t say how much I appreciated them labeling the sides Heavy and Metal – something that inspired me to do the same on all my homemade metal mix tapes. In 2012, it seems unbelievable that a 1984 UK tour of The Rods, Metallica and Exciter was cancelled due to lack of ticket sales but it’s true. It wasn’t until December of 1984 that I actually got to see Exciter‘s brand of pounding metal live in concert with Motörhead and Mercyful Fate. Details of that adventure next time.
Exciter – Heavy Metal Maniac full album: