The Mysterious Legacy of Brainbug, a.k.a. Alberto Bertapelle

If you were alive, conscious, and capable of absorbing pop culture in 1996 and 1997, you will probably recognize “Nightmare” by Brainbug, if not by name then by sound:

A worldwide dance hit, this single spawned a momentary obsession with synthesized pizzicato strings. It was a mainstay at sporting events, and turned up on the soundtrack to major feature films. It plays in the background of a scene in Night at the Roxbury as the two main characters, surrounded by floral bouquets, argue until they come to blows.

Despite the cultural ubiquity of this track, Brainbug’s identity remained somewhat opaque. Behind the moniker was Alberto Bertapelle, an Italian producer who recorded one-off releases under a variety of different names. Although there is an incomplete list on Discogs, his full oeuvre remains uncatalogued to this day; sadly, he died in 2016 during a live performance with Abbalive, an ABBA tribute group that co-founded, and for which he played guitar — a strangely non-digital footnote to his musical career.

Dance music is notorious for its complex nomenclature and its interconnectedness. Poring over what we know of Alberto Bertepelle’s full discography, the interesting aspects are in the details: lists of faceless pseudonyms, poorly-documented collaborations with other Italian names, releases on various record labels, sub-labels, sub-sub-labels.

1996’s “Nightmare” was the first single under the name Brainbug, a track that has gone on to define a certain strain of trance music that used synthesized strings instruments and other orchestral sounds. (Indeed, the most popular permutation of “Nightmare” was its “Sinister Strings Mix,” one of countless whimsically titled remixes, tweaks, and alternate versions that appeared: the “M.D.L.P. More Pumping Mix,” the “Burger Queens Remix,” the “Club 69 Meets DJ Wild From Paris Remix,” etcetera.) Buoyed by his international success, he followed “Nightmare” up with several tracks in a similar mold, likely aspiring to cash in on the public’s appetite for dark, symphonic trance and pizzicato strings.

“Benedictus” came out the following year. It uses choral vocals sourced from an aria and all manner of orchestral hits and strings, but ups the ante with an even more cavernous sound than “Nightmare.” In comments sections on YouTube, some Brainbug enthusiasts have argued that this is a superior track to its predecessor, though its chart performance was significantly weaker Whereas “Nightmare” rose to #15 on the UK singles chart, “Benedictus” only reached #25. The disparity was greater in other European countries.

Meanwhile, a follow-up that came out the same year, “The 8th Dwarf,” was a chart bomb. It featured a similar formula, but is centred around a minor-key violin melody that is more melancholy than foreboding, sort of like an Eastern-European folk song:

Bertapelle released his last Brainbug track, “Rain,” in 1998. On it, he combines his favoured pizzicato strings with the honey-dipped vocals of fellow Italian Nadia Casari, a one-off singer whose social media presence continues, to this day, to reference her association with this track. This song seems to have been ignored in Europe, but ended up faring well on US dance music charts. While “Benedictus” is Brainbug’s most powerful track, this one is a perfect marriage of “Nightmare” gloom and sterling pop.

Bertapelle trotted out the Brainbug moniker for a handful of remixes of other artists’ tracks, but after 1998, there were no further originals. In 2004, “Nightmare” grazed the charts again following an opportunistic re-release.

Though the Brainbug story commands the marquee, the most intriguing aspect of Bertepelle’s career is his labyrinth of pseudonyms. His first production credits date way back to 1994, two years before “Nightmare” came out. At that time, he was producing and mixing music under the name Dr. Albert and running a productive recording set-up known as Dr. Albert’s Studio. His fingerprints are on a number of songs from that era, all within the Italodance template: four-to-the-four beats, exuberant synths, vocals upfront. Under the monikers B.B.W., Whykiki, S.L.A.M., and L.A. Woman, he produced a number of would-be hits, many on a label called Great Dance, whose logo was a silhouette of a Great Dane. The standout is “Hold Out” by L.A. Woman, with its infectious diva chorus and euro-dance keys:

It is hard to know how successful these songs were in Italy and abroad. Many tracks were licensed to dance music compilations, and today they seem to be hot collectibles, selling for over $100 per disc. Scant descriptive information exists about the Great Dance label at this time, although a producer named Bruno Rosallini is credited as the executive producer on many releases put out by the label.

In 1996, the year of “Nightmare,” Bertapelle’s musical direction shifts radically. Gone are the exuberant, radio-friendly sounds of his various Italodance productions. Instead there is a network of dark, even minimal singles, a number of which came out on sublabels of the Italian label, Dancework. Mammut, a sub-imprint dedicated to techno and progressive house/trance, put out his “Space” single, released under the name Space Christ. Emblematic of his sound at the time, it’s a low-key and subtle track, without a major melodic hook:

Mammut also released a hard trance single by Bertapelle under the name Evil Trax, which features two mixes each of the cuts “Evil Trax” and “Thrasher.” Darker than his Brainbug work, and vastly less melodic, this single leads with the “Bould Mix” of “Evil Trax,” which is its strongest selection:

Another Dancework single, out on the sublabel Joop, is a progressive trance single that was released as a transparent pink 10″ record without a centre label. This one includes two versions of a track called “Lift Up,” and is credited to the name Drumscape. Both are fairly typical progressive trance from the era, the “Sun Version” marginally more appealing than the “Maestro Version.”

“Humdrum” by Humdrum, a faceless 12″ on Mammut, is another typical Bertapelle record of the time — oddly minimal and generic. Scant mentions of this disc appear online, although one record dealer has put up a couple clips of it on YouTube:

Part of the single was also included on a live compilation from the era:

Some of Bertapelle’s music takes inspiration from acid house. Under the bizarre name Corn on the Cob, he released a lone single, “Anorexia,” which is reaveled to be a raging techno track punched through with glorious acid synths. It is one of his finest records of this era:

And spinning more nomenclature off from the DSM, Bertapelle is listed as the person behind the name Alzheimer, responsible for a lone single, “Ictus,” in 1996. This one, a trance track with a good dose of acid, came out on the prolific Italian label PRG. The official credit on the record is listed as “Notator,” which seems to have been a Bertapelle alter-ego.

In 1998, two years after the worldwide success brought by “Nightmare,” the Bertapelle trail inexplicably goes dead. After two years spent releasing a flurry of singles under several different names — and doing a whole bunch of production work — his credits dry up entirely. It’s the strangest thing.

The only exception is a non-descript 2003 single released in Bertapelle’s typically esoteric style. “Zulu” is the only track credited under the name Deep Deed. The only current record of it online is a Discogs listing, which includes a tantalizing generic centre label:

Spending a good hour wading through the archived versions of the website for Clubbin’ Records, which was a label run by dance producer/mogul Joe T. Vannelli, I was able to track down a listing for this record, but it offers no real additional info, except that the correct nomenclature is “Deepdeed”:

It is amazing to me that labels like Clubbin released enormous catalogues of singles (“Zulu” is number 55 on Clubbin’!) only to disappear nearly entirely just a few years later, a testament to the sprawling (and poorly archived) nature of dance music of this era. Trying to gain some clarity on this anomalous Bertapelle artifact, I emailed Vannelli asking for details, but came back empty-handed.

After Deepdeed, we get nothing further from Bertapelle. He produced, in short order, a large body of dance music in various styles, culminating in international success — then disappeared a few years later, only bobbing up once for one mysterious comeback record before sinking into the depths again.

According to a translated biography, at some point Bertapelle started up a sound engineering school called the Help Music Academy. In 2006, he founded Abbashow, a touring Abba reunion group that seems to have been his main source of income from then on. He played guitar in that group and some other revival spin-offs, but there is no record of him being involved in dance music after the Deepdeed single.

Desperate for any flake of information, I tracked down and contacted Nadia Casari, who provided the vocals for Brainbug’s “Rain” single. She explains that she first came into contact with Bertapelle in 1997. “My cousin told me that a top dance music producer was looking for a singer,” she recalls. “In that period I didn’t like ‘dance’ Music at all, so, I told my cousin, ‘I’m not interested.’ But he persuaded me as he thought it was a great idea… Together we went to Alberto’s recording studio and I did a sort of audition. After about a week, he called me back to record ‘Rain.’

“During the creation of ‘Rain,’ the first thing that we did was to understand which notes I was able to reach, which were the best… We tried different melodies, he wrote the words and finally he made the arrangement.”

In 1998, he told her that ‘Rain’ would be released with her voice on it — which was apparently a challenge because the label, EMI, had wanted a singer for whom English was the mother tongue. “Our press release for the new track claimed that Alberto was standing on the Bridge of Sighs when he heard a beautiful voice,” she explains. “Upon looking down to the water, he saw a beautiful woman singing in a gondola. Alberto was overcome with excitement and yelled, in true Italian fashion, a greeting and proposed rendezvous. Our record company romanticized the whole thing.”

In reality, it was through an audition that Casari was selected, though Bertapelle reportedly said in multiple interviews that he was uniquely struck by her “soft and mysterious voice.” Craving a sense of sadness in the sound, he would reportedly urge her to tone down the cheerfulness of her singing while they recorded. “He used to tell me, ‘Nadia don’t be so happy, please! You need to be sad, if you’re not able to do it I can help you, I could stamp your feet!'”

She remembers working with Bertapelle fondly. “We used to laugh a lot during our sessions in studio. He was very patient with me and he taught me a lot of things. Working with him was so incredible. It was the best period of my life. In those years we tourned in U.S.A. (New York, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago) U.K. Germany and Australia (Brisbane, Adelaide and Sidney).”

There are a few other Bertapelle-Casari collaborations. She added some vocals to the Brainbug remix of Age of Love’s legendary “Age of Love.” You can hear her ethereal backing tracks near the end of the single here:

Even more noteworthy, she mentions that a Brainbug LP was in the works, and that they recorded 3-4 more tracks for it – but the whole thing was never released! Somewhere out there, this body of unreleased Brainbug material may be sitting on a shelf. (Casari tells me she does not know what happened to them.)

After 2001, Casari moved to Rome and fell out of touch with Bertapelle — she went on to do some recordings at Italian recording studios, including a single called “Mystic Joy.” She can’t tell me anything more about his recording career.

Perhaps his story isn’t unique. Dance producers commonly accumulate lengthy discographies of singles, though few of them enjoy the success that “Nightmare” earned Bertapelle. Even the Discogs hivemind can’t measure up to the sheer mass of electronic music that was produced in the 90s and 00s: though many records are catalogued, the hypercomplex webs that connect them are incompletely documented, many details perhaps lost forever. Back then, records were cheap to produce, and the market favoured the release of scads of discs to a ravenous audience of DJs and clubgoers. The history remains largely unsorted.

And though Discogs is an attempt to compile the records and their metadata, even more obscure are the stories behind the music. Instead, we have tales like Bertapelle’s: gap-ridden mysteries, with little to go on but scans of centre labels and the music itself, which is seemingly just as enigmatic as the pseudonyms and song titles.

Other mysterious Bertapelle productions:

Afrikan Style “Ayee” 12″ (PLM Records, 1995)
Kikka “Could It Be Love” 12″ (21st Century Records, 1996)
Ice Cube “Involution” 12″ (Mammut, 1996)
Chris J. “Get My Way” 12″ (Club Jam, 1996)
Young Power “The Progressive Theme” (Strike Force, 1996)
Tandoori “Incense Glow” 12″ (Strike Force, 1997)
Scum-Bum “Ora Et Labora” 12″ (PRG, 1997)