Even in the strange annals of metal history, the Exorcist saga is particularly weird. As an early entry into the fledgling death metal scene, they released but one album and then promptly vanished without a trace as surely as if they went into Metal Band Witness Protection. No live shows, no album signing appearances, no interviews in crappy DIY zines, no nothing! Making them all the more mysterious was the fact that only one super crappy, out of focus photo of the band existed (which included one guy in reverse KKK garb). Over time, rumors slowly began to leak that Exorcist was never a “real” band and in fact, the whole thing was a studio project by Virgin Steele frontman Dave DeFeris and bassist Joe O’Reilly, done at the behest of a small record company in a cynical attempt to cash in on the new wave of extreme metal. Jaded music industry bullshit aside, the resulting album is an interesting slice of early 80s extreme metal, fusing elements of thrash, proto-death and early elements of black metal with loads of over-the-top atmosphere designed to be eerie, but often coming across as rather cheesy. Still, some of the songs have the makings of cult classics and rival the output of better known contemporaries in early extreme metal like Venom.
Songs like “Black Mass” and “Burnt Offerings” bristle with energy and overblown attempts at being evil and raw and while it pales in comparison to the music of today, it was rather heavy and impressive way back in 86. “Death by Bewitchment” features the same pre-black metal style as the earliest Bathory platters with some Venom mixed in for good measure and my personal favorite is “Possessed,” which rocks a simple but oh-so-catchy version of blackened death very much like that which Witchery would later ride to acclaim and accolades. There are a few clunkers too and “Riding to Hell” and “Queen of the Dead” are both silly and corny, sounding more like bad Piledriver than true extreme metal.
David DeFeris did all the vocals and took great pains to mask his distinctive voice and singing style behind a wall of distorted death roars and slightly blackened rasps. He doesn’t always remain in form though and some of the vocals veer toward clean singing, but never quite get there. The guitar work is simple, but some of the riffs and flourishes remind me a lot of Possessed (ironically enough, especially during “Possessed”) and early Death.
Unlike the other retro reviews I’ve published over the years, Nightmare Theater isn’t exactly a classic that got overlooked. I view it more as a historical oddity, both for the way it was made and for the style of the music itself. It’s an interesting window into the early days of the black and death genres, before either had a fully fleshed out identity, and most likely without intending it, Exorcist created one of the first black/death crossover albums. Worth hearing for its place in the metal timeline and some of it may really stick with you.