Uncovering Exorcist’s Mystery Horror Metal Album

Back in 1980s, a mystery album titled Nightmare Theatre (1985) dropped in record stores around North America and parts of Europe, shocking those who were lucky enough to grab a first pressing. The band responsible was Exorcist, but they certainly weren’t a “band” in any sense of the word. They didn’t play any shows, didn’t do any interviews, nor did they release any follow-up material.

Everything about this release was meant to be kept secret. The album cover certainly didn’t convey much with its four masked figures. You could look into the album’s liner notes or at the track listing credits, but asking around about the names responsible, “Damian Rath” and “Marc Dorian”, wouldn’t have gotten you very far– keep in mind, this was before the internet was a proper thing– these names were pseudonyms. The only glimmer of hope for some sense of tangible connection between Nightmare Theatre and the real world was the grainy band photo contained inside copies of the album. Even then, making out the players standing in front of what looks to be an overgrown graveyard wouldn’t be an easy task. It doesn’t help that one of them sports something resembling a reverse-colour KKK costume.

Dropping the needle revealed yet another layer of mystery. Rather than sounding similar to other popular metal acts of the time like Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, or Black Sabbath –who’s singers and signature style can be easily picked out and identified by ear– Nightmare Theatre produced a rather gruesome and abrasive sonic output. The morbid concoction of aggressive speed metal, demonic vocals, and harrowing audio samples of witches being sentenced to be burned at the stake offered an immediate contrast to whatever metal music kids were listening to on MTV at the time.

It wouldn’t be too hard to guess that Nightmare Theatre wasn’t a chart-topper. Well, it didn’t really matter because that wasn’t the point of the whole thing, but we’ll get to that later. What was undoubtedly a flop in the eyes of the Hot 100, slowly became a minor underground sensation among metal fans who listened to the more extreme end of the genre. Today, nearly 35 years after its release, Nightmare Theatre is celebrated as a cult album that was ahead of its time, influencing the more extreme metal subgenres of black metal and grindcore which developed years later. Keep in mind, this was all without anyone knowing who actually played on the album or wrote its music.

Fortunately for us (or unfortunately, depending on how engaged you were with the mystery aspect of this story), those 35 years have also shed some light on the album’s secretive origins. Nightmare Theatre was actually written and performed by singer David DeFeis and guitarist Edward Pursino, who played together in Virgin Steele, a hard rock/heavy metal band based in Long Island, New York. While their main group had just released their third full-length, the Exorcist project allowed for the two musicians to experiment with something of a different speed (with the assistance of a few other players on the record, of course).

Well, allowed is probably a bit of a stretch. DeFeis and Pursino were more-so not-so-kindly asked to write and record the album because they owed a debt to their record company. As DeFeis put it in a 2017 interview with Oldschool Metal Maniac, “we had run into so-called monetary difficulties with certain people. In order to get a clean slate and go back to square one, we were invited to do this other kind of project.”

This situation actually wasn’t too uncommon. Labels would often loan an advance to a musician to record an album on the premise that their project would make enough money to pay off the loan (of course, if the record was a sleeper and the loan couldn’t be paid off from its profits, the musician would be in trouble). In these cases, labels would often throw fake bands together to write and record albums for free so musicians could pay off their debts - no royalties, nothing. I guess that’s better than getting your knee busted in with a baseball bat.

This was so common that a specific name for these releases was coined, aptly-dubbed “Metal-Ploitation.” Some albums to fall under this category are Original Sin’s Sin Will Find You Out (1986), Convict’s Go Ahead… Make My Day (1985), and Piledriver’s Metal Inquisition (1985), among many others. These “Metal-Ploitation” records are all rushed, poorly recorded, and feature mostly filler, as they were written by unpassionate musicians who were just doing it because they had to pay off their debts.

But, Nightmare Theatre is a diamond in the rough here. Despite DeFeis and Pursino not getting paid a dime for the record (which was written and recorded over two weekends), they used this opportunity to craft something that wasn’t possible with the mellower Virgin Steele. Rather, they used this fresh slate to write a totally off-the-wall release, with DeFeis taking heavy inspiration from his fascination with horror movies and the Salem witch trials. Since DeFeis’ manager didn’t want people thinking he was singing in a new band, he asked DeFeis to change his vocal style for the Exorcist record. Well, DeFeis took it to the opposite extreme, as his powerful clean singing style was now morphed into a guttural demonic growl. (He certainly succeeded in his manager’s request, as one can barely understand the lyrics he’s singing, let alone who’s singing them). Finally, the two musicians’ pseudonyms and lack of follow-up material set up a pretty neat mystery for a while, as finding out who played on this record would have been nearly impossible before DeFeis decided to come clean with some recent interviews.

In turn, these parameters all came together in a perfect storm, which is what makes Nightmare Theatre so special. If you listen to the extremity offered by DeFeis’ demonic vocals, Pursino’s scratchy galloping guitar, and the album’s occult imagery, it really is comparable to other landmark extreme metal releases of the time like Bathory’s The Return…... (1985) and Sodom’s In the Sign of Evil (1984).

However, rather than coming from a band that purposefully formed to shock and terrify listeners from the get-go, Nightmare Theatre was the haphazard product of many factors that should have gone wrong, but all ended up going right. Despite not getting paid a dime for the record, DeFeis and Pursino took the opportunity in stride, turning something that was just supposed to be a quick cash grab into a memorable album worthy of being celebrated decades later.

Hunter co-hosts The Iron Club with JP, your weekly dose of extreme metal from around the globe. Tune in on Sundays from 9:00-11:00PM.