I know this Belgian dude who acts as my barometer for judging a band’s obscurity. The man’s knowledge of all things metal never ceases to amaze me. Whether it’s the newest grindcore band from Kuala Lumpur or a NWOBHM act that only ever released a live demo, he’ll have heard of them and, provided they aren’t too kvlt for social media, have “liked” them on Facebook. So when I look at a band page and don’t see his name on their fan list, it’s usually because they are so fresh you can suck their nuts. Italy’s Braindamage are far from fresh: almost three decades old, The Downfall is the sixth record they’ve put out since their 1993 debut Signal de Rivolta, but my heavy metal compadre’s name was nowhere to be found on their page. Yet they have quite an impressive history, having toured with Killing Joke, worked with Steve Albini, and lost a drummer to Dragonforce. For a while I could think of only one explanation: they could not possibly be metal.
A quick listen to their back-catalog disproved this hypothesis: Braindamage are totally metal, and have released some fabulous material over the years, particularly the bonkers, Voivody prog-thrash of their debut. But over time their sound shifted, remaining technical but decreasing the zaniness until 2009’s The Impostor had more in common with modern Testament and Nevermore than it did with their own early material. The Downfall is a logical continuation of this stylistic evolution, sounding like a mix of Demonic and Dead Heart in a Dead World, but with the addition of a little Destroy Erase Improve-inspired rhythmic trickery. It’s one of those albums that is still labeled as “modern metal” even though its main influences are over fifteen years old (the press-release goes one further, describing the music as futuristic1).
The majority of The Downfall is heavy, aggressive, and largely derivative of the three records mentioned above – Andrea Signorelli’s mix of harsh and melodic singing at times even sounding like Warrel Dane passed through a Chuck Billy growl filter. Faster tracks such as “Substituting Forgiveness with Mass Destruction,” “God Granted Your Prayers through Nuclear Warheads” and “You Nailed My Soul I Burned Your Flesh” are particularly uninteresting – flawlessly executed but lacking identity and soul. It’s when they return to some of their earlier influences, as on the Killing Joke inspired grooves of “Subhuman’s Towns Merciless Obliteration” and “Last of the Kings, First of the Slaves,” that they are at their most engaging. These songs, along with the angular dissonance and Darkane-styled swing of “The Shadow I Cast Is Yours, Not Mine,” are highlights in a set of well-named but otherwise pedestrian tracks.
The production provides the biggest clue that this is an album released in 2016, not 2001: though the songs would have benefited greatly from a wider dynamic range, loudness has predictably been prioritized. Otherwise, the production fits the music well – the guitars sound heavy and dense but icily precise, the bass is not too suppressed, and the machine-like drums contribute to the industrial vibe. Braindamage have proven throughout their career that they are excellent musicians, and their performances on The Downfall are air-tight, with some ludicrously acrobatic guitar solos.
Braindamage seem to be perennially behind the times: their excellent debut sadly missed the thrash boat by half a decade, while their latest output relies on fifteen year old influences for its supposedly futuristic sound. Poor timing is my new hypothesis for their relative obscurity, and unfortunately I don’t think their efforts to modernize are going to help them break out of that.