When Exorcist originally issued their one and only album »Nightmare Theatre« via Cobra Records back in 1986, there was confusion all around. Who was this band that virtually came out of nowhere? And who is playing on the record? All members used pseudonyms and the sleeve itself did not feature a band photo. So what was »Nightmare Theatre« supposed to be? An early death metal classic or just and elaborate hoax?
The whole truth came to light only decades later when legendary Virgin Steele singer David DeFeis confirmed that he not only handled the mix of the record but was also responsible for the entire concept and of course the lead vocals. However, in the underground metal scene of the day, »Nightmare Theatre« had already become a cult album shortly after its original release in 1986.
Surprisingly, David DeFeis states that back in the day it was not really that difficult to keep the secret about Exorcist’s real identity: “It was pretty easy actually. No one really knew who was on there… sure there was speculation, but nobody really knew what it was all about or who did what. There is still confusion about it and all sorts of wrong information out there on the internet.”
By 1986, Virgin Steele had just recorded “Noble Savage” and there were three spare days of studio time – that was all the time that was needed to record “Nightmare Theatre”. “Yes that was it and it was actually probably more like two and a half days”, laughs David DeFeis. “We finished up earlier than expected. We cut all the music the first day, and on the second day we did all the vocals and guitar solos, and then started mixing. The following day we went back in and completed the remaining mixes and I also did all those interlude pieces like ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Hex’. I did create all those pieces myself in the studio, using my voice and an old Ensoniq mirage keyboard… (it was a new piece of gear back then!). And I also used other crazy devices like aluminum foil, hammers, whatever… nothing was borrowed from any film. I knew exactly what I wanted to do prior to going in, so I was able to work very quickly.”
As could have been expected, the concept of »Nightmare Theatre« was at least partly influenced by horror film culture: “Horror films probably had somewhat of an influence, as yes, I am very much a horror film fan. I still love the movie »Horror Hotel«, which is in black and white and has a kind of »Nightmare Theatre« type ambiance. The other films that I enjoyed as a kid that had a great atmosphere were »The Blood on Satan’s Claw« and »Mark Of The Devil«. I also read a lot of horror or supernatural type books, so there was that influence, and for that album I really dove into a subject that has interested me since the fifth grade: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and all that went on during that period in history. For some reason I have always been drawn to that particular time and place. Maybe I am the reincarnation of John Proctor! I began reading about the whole witchcraft epidemic in elementary school. For some reason our school library had a few books on the subject and I read them all and they really resonated with me. The »Nightmare Theatre« album is a kind of mini-proto-thrash/black-metal opera based largely on that topic. I have been to Salem and Marblehead and the other surrounding towns, and I must say: It all did feel very familiar to me.
I did indeed write all the lyrics to »Nightmare Theatre« on my own. I got myself into that Salem Witchcraft type head-space, and I also tapped into the Witchcraft things that were happening in Europe… the inquisition and all the various dramas that each country had going on. These are subjects that I have always been interested in, so that Exorcist project afforded me the opportunity to explore those particular passions of mine.”
Back in 1986, the death metal and black metal scenes weren’t that big as they are today. Sure, you had pioneers such as Venom, Bathory, Possessed and Death but where was the actual connection between those and a project like Exorcist? “We didn’t have a huge connection to those genres”, states David DeFeis. “We were aware of Venom, a little bit of Slayer we might have heard…hmm… let’s see… a Bathory album perhaps and not too much else. Edward and I always rather liked Venom… the vibe of their records was cool, and we eventually did a big festival with them in Greece, which was really nice. We hung around and chatted with them for the day… they were very nice, very approachable people. But no, back then we had not had all that much exposure to all the early thrash bands… just bits and pieces here and there. But what we did hear we generally liked and were open to.”
At no point in time did David DeFeis consider Exorcist to be merely a hoax band: “No, I never thought of it as a hoax. We took it seriously in terms of rehearsing all the songs before we went in and recorded the album, and we were serious about crafting the songs and creating something that we could stand by years later. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be something that we were going to make several more albums with or have an ongoing career with, but that being said we did actually manage to come up with several more tracks just in case we wanted to do a second album… so I guess you could say that we didn’t take it lightly. We did care about it and we really enjoyed making the album and all the writing and rehearsing that went into it.”
So there actually was the possibility of a second Exorcist album? “Yes, as I mentioned earlier, we did write some more tracks that we saved on a cassette for a second album, should the need arise”, confirms the Virgin Steele singer. “Perhaps we should do that one day soon as well. There will actually be a few bonus tracks on the High Roller re-issue coming out, plus some alternate mixes of some of the songs, like ‘Execution Of The Witches’ and ‘Burnt Offerings’ for example, and I have re-mastered the entire album. I think it will be a very nice package. I have taken a lot of time with it, restoring the original tapes, and painstakingly going through all the musical material and artwork. It has been very rewarding for me personally to undertake all the work on this. This project has definitely brought back many memories. One in particular stands out. One day the drummer Geoff was late for rehearsal and I asked him why. His reply was: ‘I was abducted by aliens!” And he was totally serious. This, he claims, happens to him quite often.”
In order to keep the identity of the band secret David De Feis had chosen the pseudonym of “Damian Rath” for himself: “I came up with all the group names, and also all the crew member’s names. I am always thinking, and always writing, creating music, lyrics, poems, and titles… stories… whatever… So that was just an outgrowth of my creative process. The name Damian sounds kind of demonic and ‘Rath”’ sounds like ‘wrath’, which is a good wicked sounding word.”
So how many live shows did Exorcist play throughout their “career”? The answer, not surprisingly, is: “None as Exorcist. But three of us have played together in various other projects, namely a thing called Carnival Of Souls, which featured myself, Marc Dorian and Geoff Fontaine, and we did play ‘Queen Of The Dead’.”
According to David DeFeis, the time was finally right to re-release »Nightmare Theatre«: “For the past several years I have been receiving an average of three to four offers a month from various labels wanting to re-issue the album. I have always said: ‘No I am not interested in doing it’, but this time the offer came at the right time, and was quite interesting so I thought ‘well, maybe?’, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the record’s time had finally come. My idea was to issue something special that leaps out and says: ‘This is not a bootleg, this is an actual re-issue put out with thought and care and a whole lotta love for what the album was all about.’”