The Fuel Of The Furnace pt. 12: the 40th anniversary of “Exciter”

“You’ll never see him, but you will taste the fire upon your tongue…”

Origins

When one lists the most influential heavy metal albums of the 1970’s, Judas Priest’s “Stained Class” cannot be excluded from the list. And yes, we are talking about heavy metal, a very fragile term in that day and age. In 1978 it was still virtually non-existent, with such benchmark bands as Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult and Led Zeppelin drifting off to other waters and the arrival of NWOBHM still couple of years off. Originally Priest’s 1978 release might not have been revered as much as it is today, but in the 2010’s it is recognized for the introduction of screaming guitars and the early influences on speed metal in tracks such as the one we are examining here: “Exciter.”

Amidst busy touring schedule in October 1977 Judas Priest entered the Chipping Norton Studios in London with producer Dennis MacKay. After completing the final masters in the following month, the record company executives were still left demanding for a suitable single. Admittedly none of the recorded material was exactly commercially viable so the band re-entered the recording facilities, this time in also London-based Utopia Studios. Unfortunately MacKay was no longer available having committed himself to another project so Priest utilised Utopia resident James Guthrie’s (Pink Floyd, later Queensrÿche) services for the track.

Just like “Sin After Sin’s” “Diamonds And Rust,” the band opted for an obscure cover number, this time by Spooky Tooth. “Better By You, Better Than Me” was originally written by Gary Wright and recorded for Spooky Tooth’s 1969’s album “Spooky Two“. Whilst no one could deny the song’s commercial potential, it failed to chart. However, with the songs parent LP notable was Priest’s first chart entry in the US. “Stained Class” barely missed the top 100 with a #104 peak position. The band didn’t let the chart success or lack of it deter them and shot straight out on the road with powerful live show and relentless attitude.

As an entity eventually “Stained Class” won the critics over and is regarded as one of the all-time classic heavy metal albums from the 1970’s. Time always flies too quickly and the record actually now enjoys its 40th anniversary. Back when it was released in 1978, punk was the word on everyone’s lips in Great Britain. Some have stated during that year only two heavy metal bands released any records at all; Priest with “Stained Class” and “Killing Machine” and UFO with “Obsession” and seminal “Strangers In The Night.” But the NWOBHM was only couple of years away; Priest kept forging ahead and solidified their homeland reputation with “Stained Class.” The album was the first to actually chart in the USA. Even more remarkable was its success in Japan, which resulted in Priest’s first visit of many to the land of the rising sun in the spring of 1978. Priest were also in a transitional mode moving from 1970’s flamboyant image towards more harder, leather and studs based look. At the time of “Stained Class’” release, this wasn’t yet fully realised and on the band’s first Japanese tour, Rob Halford was still opting for silk and satin.

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The LP and the opening cut “Exciter” begin with fast and furious drum salvo, before main guitar riff takes over. This makes excellent impression and first off the gate presenting band’s new drummer Les Binks. Binks had debuted with Priest on the “Sin After Sin”- tour previous year and “Stained Class” was his first studio record with the band.

Binks played double bass drums on the track, which nowadays is very common but in 1978 this was almost unheard of. Drum sound is excellent here, perfectly enhancing the speed and precision of the arrangement. Throughout the song, Binks delivers numerous fills and breaks which truly impress and also separates “Stained Class” from past decade’s more usual rhythm technique. The difference is clear even with Priest’s previous album and Simon Phillips’ equally powerful but perhaps more sophisticated playing style. Good contrast is “Call For The Priest” from “Sin After Sin.” Phillips’ drumming is skilful and drives the song along, but the sound on “Stained Class” and especially Binks’ drums are instantly heavier and rely more on forceful fills.

The opening guitar riff on “Exciter” has a distinctive sound, which is rooted in the 1970’s but still manages to sound bold, brash and exciting when compared to any metal song released today. The riff supplements at 0:54 for example also make an innovative mark. Rhythm is tight and sharp reminding us again of previous album’s faster songs like “Sinner” and “Call For The Priest.” Two verses and two choruses take us into 1:20 on the song. Rob adds “Here he comes now, fall to your knees and repent if you please” as the music comes to a full stop behind him. Pay attention how Binks’ cymbal hit is left ringing almost until the song resumes. The arrangement is classic Priest in its switching of gears countless times as the song progresses.

The sole guitar solo follows unusually early in a song, considering it contains four verses. Played by Glenn Tipton, it is essentially a run-through of melodic lines. Guitar sound during the lead is awesome, and offers an interesting counterpoint to main riff. As often with Priest songs; guitar actually sings another verse here. This particular solo is fairly long one, lasting almost 30 seconds and features two themes. Higher sung bridge follows with guitar playing the riff in higher key. Drums are amazing throughout – fills, cymbal hits and change in pace follow each other keeping the arrangement in order and providing a constant sense of threat. Music is kept charging forward with seemingly quickening grip.

We quickly move into third proper verse with more fills and drum work heralding its arrival. Same riff enhancements carry the track forward and the 2:55 there’s a loud effect, either played by keyboard or guitar. Very notable segment of “Exciter” and indeed whole “Stained Class” is the accompanying musical enhancements around the core of guitars, bass and drums. The sound effects Priest had used ever since “Rocka Rolla” started to pop up more regularly on “Sin After Sin” and “Stained Class.” They never steal the attention from the proper song writing but are there rather just to enhance the arrangement and add to song’s message and musical force. There’s a lot going on underneath “Exciter,” with numerous sonic additions usually at key points marking a change in rhythm or the end of a verse.

What also separates Priest from rest of the pack is the full-on theatrics displayed by their lead singer. Through a part like “fall to your knees and repent if you please” Rob again is writing and performing in full character with sneer and contempt in both his lyrics and singing clearly at display. This was very evident throughout his late 1970’s and early 1980’s performances. He also seems to sing each and every chorus just a slightly higher than the previous one.

When Rob sings “you never see him but you will taste the fire upon your tongue” in comes excellent vocal harmony mid-way through the line with more Halfords singing back-ups and a change in the furious tempo of the song giving it added effectiveness. The classic guitar harmony starts at 3:37 first preceded by a single guitar build-up which also connects different parts of harmony as it progresses. This lead break is one of the most revered in heavy metal genre and justly so. It is a benchmark for double guitar leads, only preceded by the likes of Kiss“Detroit Rock City.” and odd number by Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash. It proved two lead guitars could really do more than one – it also introduced us to power metal some 10 years before the genre took on a full flight. And again listen how drums lead the charge underneath.

Tempo slows down a notch and during the part “exciter comes for everyone” another guitar effect most likely by K.K. Downing is heard at 4:16. This effect creates an image of Exciter descending rapidly from the sky with a sound of fire and wind all around him. The fourth verse arrives with change in pace underneath the frontlines of guitars and vocals. “Only when there’s order, will his job be done” Rob drives in the ending with a full on theatre mode and the music behind him jolts like a power surge of electricity has gone through it.

The bridge is repeated and the fifth verse is also a repeat of the first one. Instead of chorus, we only get repeats of the first chorus line and songs grinds to halt. At 4:50 slightly longer guitar effect signals this and the fact that Exciter is now closer than ever. We as fans are totally used to it by now, but looking at the arrangement, this is quite unusual way of bringing the track to a closure. Rob flies off the gate with three final “stand by for Exciter!” screams – each one higher than the last and the last syllable lasting five seconds. This really became a benchmark for future heavy metal vocalists who wanted scream high, loud and long. And amazingly Halford could – not only replicate, but actually improve on the studio recording when the song was done live on the subsequent tour. Binks’ drum blasts at the end of the song are aided with cymbal hits, and final furious fill before chords come crashing down and again cymbals are left ringing just slightly before second track “White Heat, Red Hot” begins.

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Priest were proud of the album and its opening track. K.K. later summed up his feelings on the song: “Exciter, that’s just a classic Priest track. I think that one and “Hell Bent For Leather” would be synonymous with the name Judas Priest. We just set out to write the fastest track ever written.”

Song’s message of final judgement day and the bringer of vengeance is familiar one, but not done too often when Priest originally recorded this track. Some examples existed as far back as Black Sabbath and their genre starting “Iron Man” in 1970: “vengeance from the grave kills the people he once saved.” And four years later Deep Purple’s “Stormbringer” depicted “a bareback rider, on the eye of the sky” who was going to make you bleed.

However, the character in Sabbath’s song is a man betrayed by people and turned into an avenger in process. Deep Purple’s tale of storm bringer seems to be literally about the storm itself, although the cover features a horse with angel wings leaping over a twister. Priest’s Exciter for certain, is one straight out of this world.

Let’s examine what or who “Exciter” actually is; the similar angel of retribution- character has appeared on several Priest numbers throughout their career. “Exciter” in many ways is the same intergalactic avenger as “Painkiller” some 12 years later. When one studies the lyrics to “Painkiller,” it becomes obvious it is the same character in sequel mode. And later he’s there again in 2005’s epic “Hellrider.” And the story of this archangel would not end there as it has resurfaced in different forms all over Priest’s rich discography from “Sad Wings Of Destiny’s” cover onwards.

The first verse sets the scene: Exciter is way up in the sky moving fast through the atmosphere, the image of a crashing comet from space springs to mind. He is coming from another universe; through reference of going past the heavens suggests he is not exactly a divine character. The man or monster in question is moving so fast, one cannot see him and only feels the taste of his fire. The whole song is practically a set of portrayals of one burning or sensing the fire and an unknown entity approaching. It also rather sarcastically presents mankind’s corruption and stupidity, as many songs on the album do.

Whether Exciter is actually the angel of death is never made clear as on the third verse protagonist states “he’s come to make you snap out of the state that you are in” and later “make you see the light again” suggesting a more spiritual awakening than the one forthcoming in death. “So much self-indulgence” and it resulting in “shattered eyes” echoes the sentiment felt on previous album and “Stained Class’s” title track of mankind’s debauchery and fall. That man virtually suffocates under ”predominant complacency” and it leading to “beguiling lies” shows Halford’s pen and humour are sharply in place.

“When he leaps amidst us with combustive dance” offers another brilliant slice of storytelling power and helps us to understand the character, which is definitely not a one-dimensional figure from some cartoon. Vengeance in Exciter’s hands becomes an art form. The final statement in the song is “the age of fire’s at hand” clearly referring to either the end of the world or mental cleansing of a wider scale. Exciter’s task is heavy and arduous one: “only when there’s order, will his job be done.”

“Exciter” follows previous albums’ “The Ripper,” “Tyrant” and “Starbreaker” in the inevitably long line of Priest monsters (or more accurately characters). There would be more to come on almost each and every record, and it’s impossible to name just one to top them all. The band was able to breathe life through the lyrics and into these figures, sometimes painting them as tragic war casualties (“Sinner,” “The Sentinel”), sometimes intangible life forms (“Monster Of Rock”), sometimes just plain horrific creatures or vampires (“Jugulator,” “Night Crawler”). Whatever the approach, the results were always fascinating.

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“Stained Class” in many ways was just as political as the previous album but with more serious social overtones, the challenges individual faces under oppression are taking more space. Most in this case refer to the title track, the Indians under oppression in “Savage” and the alien invasion on “Invader.” But also on “Heroes End” the inevitable pressure of a man versus legend comes to front, possibly referring to the then recent death of Elvis Presley.

“Exciter” live

Priest went out on tour to support their new album immediately after its release and unsurprisingly “Exciter” became the set opener. The futuristic intro from “Invader” was lifted to begin the show, and this was followed by series of power chords before the actual studio arrangement of “Exciter” kicked off.

The song worked brilliantly in this spot and would remain there until the end of the decade. Towards the end of tour supporting “Killing Machine,” “Hell Bent For Leather” had taken the opening slot and “Exciter” was dropped from the set altogether. Obviously the song was very demanding to play and especially for Rob to sing so perhaps they wanted to pace themselves.

The official live take was released fairly soon after its inception, more specifically in 1979 on the classic “Unleashed In The East.” This version is possibly even more well-known than its studio counterpart. Even if Halford did repair the vocals in the studio, it does not in any shape or form decrease the respect it enjoys. During the early 1979 Japanese dates, Rob was suffering from the flu and partial laryngitis, which took a toll on his voice. But whenever he stepped up to sing “Exciter” that features on “Unleashed In The East” he was in the best shape of his life. The opening track of one of the ultimate live albums of all time is nothing short of spectacular. Of course the music beside him is also sublime, but Halford’s incredible vocal performance would maybe demand a story of its own.

In the early days of touring and exceedingly up to mid-1980’s Priest would speed up the tempos on each and every track up to a point that “Breaking The Law” for example barely crossed the two-minute mark! “Exciter” took on a faster route as well, the 1978-1979 live versions clocking at approximately five minutes plus roughly one minute of extended intro and outro added.

It would take nearly 25 years before “Exciter” returned to Priest-related set-list with both Halford solo-band and Priest playing the song on their respective 2002 summer tours. For Priest it was their last tour with Ripper Owens on vocals and rounded up a full year of promotion for 2001’s “Demolition” CD. “Exciter” appeared mid-way through the gig and impressed with its immense arrangement. In Priest’s 2002 take, Ripper delivered a rock solid version slightly down tuned in arrangement akin to a lot of group’s material in those days. However, the pace and power certainly aren’t lost and Owens shines all the way through. These were very commendable additions to “Exciter” live outtake collection. Ripper has also done a worthwhile cover version of “Exciter” himself, but more on that later.

As for Halford’s 2002 solo version, Rob introduced the song: “For the first time in a long time, this is the Exciter!” His singing is excellent for the period, remaining in higher register throughout. Backing musicians also fill their role adequately. Aside from few selected summer festivals, by the time Halford’s tour resumed in Japan and US in 2003, “Exciter” was no longer played.

The song appeared again during Priest’s 2005 “Angel Of Retribution”- tour. “Exciter” was performed during the middle part of the relatively long show, which often stretched out to 22 or 23 songs. As of now, this has been the final year “Exciter” has been heard in a Judas Priest concert. Priest delivered a more than solid rendition, still bursting with fire and energy. Halford’s deeper vocals don’t seem out of place at all, despite changes in arrangement to suit his current style. The famous guitar lead is performed faithfully and Rob gives his all on the final scream. “Exciter” was in the set-list throughout band’s European and Japanese dates, first US leg and South American tour, by October the song was gone and has been absent ever since. The “Angel Of Retribution”- tour was immortalized on the “Rising In The East” DVD release recorded at the legendary Tokyo Budokan. “Exciter” is delivered in front of enthusiastic crowd who sing back the legendary guitar harmony with everything they have got. On the following US-tour Rob’s voice had warmed up after several months of touring and he showed this by giving two long “Stand By for Exciter!” screams at the end.

Despite the merit of all these various live versions from a period of over 25 years, the original studio cut and the one released on “Unleashed In The East” still remain unbeatable. A large chunk of credit goes to Les Binks’ incredible drum style, which really make this song what it is. It’s a definite highlight of a heavy metal band at the height of its powers.

Legacy

“Stained Class’” influences these days are possibly better understood by examining its political and social statements and reflect them within current heavy metal music. The themes of sci-fi were very popular towards the end of 1970’s with the popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek. “Exciter,” “White Heat, Red Hot” and “Invader” all contain sci-fi imagery and references. The earlier expressions of war and tyranny in society were now dressed in more futuristic clothes, and fantasy was being used to tell the same stories. The shift from society towards individual as Priest’s main protagonist started to take place in the following album “Killing Machine” but the lyrical palette used in full richness throughout the next decade, can clearly be found also on “Stained Class.”

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The album is cold and again reflects in Midlands’ state of industrial despair and unemployment. It wouldn’t be addressed directly yet (that would take place on “British Steel” couple of years later) but it is there just under the surface and in the sounds and scopes of the material. Songs like “Beyond The Realms Of Death“ and “White Heat Red Hot” are heavy, sharp and dark. They are almost dangerous in a way 1970’s metal never were. Of course Black Sabbath were evil and menacing, but this was something far more deadly and vicious. A song like “Saints In Hell” echoed Sabbath itself and in some ways preceded the later mystic nature of the Ronnie James Dio-era. “Heroes End” was in parts as heavy as anything out there at the end of 1970’s.

Lyrically “Stained Class” might just be Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton’s (who wrote both “White Heat, Red Hot” and “Heroes End”) finest hour. The stories are rich and multi-dimensional. Later on Priest would venture into more traditional (they created it) song writing, but the interpretations would still remain there. On “Stained Class” Halford and Tipton write songs that go from politics to person’s inner psyche. At the end of the album one finds these things are really all the same. It is most obviously reflected in the lyrics from “Exciter’s” “predominant complacency leads to beguiling lies” to “Heroes End’s” “living dead carry on immortal deeds.” Yet the end is bleak and the end of the album “so many things are left unsaid.”

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The social and political commentary “Stained Class” excels in was already discussed before, yet few points remain to be made. Priest’s central themes have always been individual against tyranny, here displayed most accordingly on several songs. “The streets run with blood from the mass mutilation” on “Saints In Hell,” “long ago when man was king, his heart was clean” on the title track and finally “hungry mouths are waiting to bite the hand that feeds” on the album closer “Heroes End.”

Unfortunately “Stained Class” as an album and particularly the single “Better By You Better Than Me” still gets attached to the ludicrous court case Priest went through some 12 years after album’s release. This despite the fact that “Better By You, Better Than Me” was actually a love song recited by someone going off to war. Luckily the focus has nowadays shifted back to album’s true essence, the astounding music it contains and the on-going influence of its themes in today’s metal folklore. In 2004, a UK magazine Metal Hammer named “Stained Class” the heaviest metal album of all time.

The album was remastered along with other Priest classics in 2001, with two bonus tracks added. Second of them, the live take of “Better By You, Better Than Me” actually originating from the 1990 Foundations Forum concert. Remastering improved the heavy and bleak sound of the record but one is still left wondering how “Stained Class” would stand sonically if recorded later under the guidance of long time Priest-producer Tom Allom. Attach a sound of “British Steel” to a song like “White Heat, Red Hot” you might get the picture.

The sleeve artwork was done by Roslav Szaybo who worked at CBS Records. “Stained Class” introduced Priest’s most classic logo, replacing the more gothic styled logo of earlier releases. Whatever the cover stands for, is another story altogether but some see it as a continuation of album’s main social themes. A bullet going through the head of the figure, which looks slightly like the liquid terminator from James Cameron’s 1991-movie. Considering the year “Stained Class” was released, it’s quite ground breaking.

“Exciter” was included on the 1993 double compilation “Metal Works” and on the liner notes K.K. stated of the song: “When Rob’s vocals had got as high as he could possibly get, we would always insist he went higher! And he could achieve it too…” Ian Hill replied to it: “…amidst much sweating and bulging of forehead!” “Exciter” as it stands remains a prototype song to have an influence on speed metal many years before the movement actually took place. Double bass drums, ultra-fast rhythm, Halfords inhuman vocals and rip roaring guitar solos all form a constitution on which speed metal bands would later on build their careers. The sci-fi theme of its lyrics and arrangement are continuously repeated in different disguises and concepts.

Most notable in this genre are Germany’s Iron Savior, who have also covered several Priest songs. Most of their songs are either about events in space or going to the future. Progressive metal pioneers Ayreon released their masterpiece, a double album “The Dream Sequencer/Flight Of The Migrator” in 2000. One of the best albums created in this millennium, space travelling has seldom been described in such a grand and beautiful manner. Vocal superstars including Sir Russell Allen, Bruce Dickinson and Lana Lane add their effective personal styles to the mix. More regular output of this nature comes from sci-fi progressive favourites Vanden Plas and Pagan’s Mind while Symphony X’s “Paradise Lost” and “Iconoclast” go deeper into political avenues explored by Priest throughout late 1970’s and later on “Screaming For Vengeance” and “Defenders Of The Faith”

Furthermore “Exciter” being in the upper echelon of influential Priest tracks in their back catalogue, it is hardly surprising several cover versions exist. One of the most famous was cut by arguably Germany’s finest power metal band Gamma Ray most likely in the early 1990’s. Vocalist Ralf Scheepers (at one time close to securing the Priest frontman seat as well) puts in amazing performance. His vocals soar to phenomenal heights and rest of the Rays do splendid work here as well. This version can be located on the first volume of 1996’s “A Tribute to the Legends of Metal.”

Of more of an unknown origin, Killswitch recorded a solid if not spectacular take for the “Hell Bent For Metal 2 – Tribute To Judas Priest” – album in early 2000. The arrangement is almost identical to the original take. And lastly Priest’s former vocalist Ripper Owens covered the song himself on the fairly recent “The Broken Law” tribute album. Having sung the song before several times, Owens is confident and unleashes a double tracked scream at the end of the song one must hear to believe. No doubt there will be more cover versions surfacing in the future, and even if Priest themselves never tackle “Exciter” live again, there will always be countless of upcoming bands cranking that classic guitar harmony in rehearsal rooms and shacks all around the world.

With acknowledgements: Judas Priest Info Pages

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“Exciter” stats

• Written by Glenn Tipton & Rob Halford
• Recorded at Chipping Norton Studios, London, October – November 1977
• Produced by Dennis MacKay and Judas Priest
• First released on “Stained Class” album in February 1978
• Also released on “Metal Works” in 1993

K.K. comments:

Again it all seems so long ago but the “Stained Class”- era has lots of cherished memories for me. The song “Exciter” immediately brings to mind our good friend Les Binks who served the band so well. His drumming capabilities enabled us to write songs like “Exciter.” I think in a way and especially because of the lyrical content “Exciter” was an earlier “Painkiller.” Les had a great technique and managed to make everything look so easy. “Exciter” for me though, was quite a test at the time and required a lot of concentration. I even think that on some nights I played the whole thing without breathing out until it was all over. For me a definite Priest classic!

“Exciter” lyrics

Racing’ cross the heavens
Straight into the dawn
Looking like a comet
Slicing through the morn
Scorching the horizon
Blazing to the land
Now he’s here amongst us
The age of fire’s at hand

Stand by for Exciter
Salvation is his task
Stand by for Exciter
Salvation bids to ask

Everything he touches
Fries into a crisp,
Let him get close to you
So you’re in his trip,
First you’ll smoke and smoulder
Blister up and singe
When ignition hits you
The very soul of your being will cringe

Stand by for Exciter
Salvation is his task
Stand by for Exciter
Here he comes now
Fall to your knees and repent if you please

Who is this man?
Where is he from?
Exciter comes
For everyone.
You’ll never see him
But you will taste the fire upon your tongue

He’s come to make you snap out of the state that you are in
Looks around and make you see the light again
So much self-indulgence
Results in shattered eyes
Predominant complacency
Leads to beguiling lies.

Stand by for Exciter
Salvation is his task
Stand by for Exciter
Salvation bids to ask

When he leaps amidst us
With combustive dance
All shall bear the branding
Of his thermal lance,
Cauterising masses
Melting into one
Only when there’s order
Will his job be done.

Stand by for Exciter
Salvation is his task
Stand by for Exciter
Here he comes now
Fall to your knees and repent if you please

Who is this man?
Where is he from?
Exciter comes
For everyone
You’ll never see him
But you will taste the fire upon your tongue

Racing past the heavens
Straight into the dawn
Looking like a comet
Slicing through the morn
Scorching the horizon
Blazing to the land
Now he’s here amongst us
The age of fire’s at hand

Stand by for Exciter
Stand by for Exciter
Stand by for Exciter
Stand by for Exciter

 

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About Ville Krannila