Renowned Italian composer and guitar virtuoso Daniele Gottardo’s brilliant new concept album, INkBlot, is an inventive and daring series of modern guitar chamber music that dives deep into the realms of visual art, psychology, harmony, and counterpoint. From the album’s opening flurry of impressionistic strings and subtle, textural guitar arpeggios, one is immediately drawn in like Alice chasing the White Rabbit—lured by the wafting mist of harmonic colors, driven by the music’s visceral sense of wonder and curiosity. And the world awaiting—the one so carefully spun from waking dreams into existence by Gottardo—is every bit as rich, colorful and sublime as Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
INkBlot is a record that contains multitudes. It is alternately sonorous and dissonant, blissful and frightening, focused and whimsical, peaceful and unsettling, at times excited to the point of restless anxiety before collapsing into hushed contentment. It is intellectual but never sacrifices its emotional gravity on the altar of the academic, and it is achingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. The album exists at a rare vertex in space-time where Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” straps in alongside Stravinsky’s Firebird on an interstellar spacecraft bound for star systems unknown. Through it all, Gottardo is at the helm, his electric six-string his avatar as he interacts with the fantastical alternate universe he’s created, his guitar melodies weaving in and out in dialogue with the ensemble, strands of thread on the cosmic loom.
“Definitely the guitar on the album represents me, the person,” Gottardo says. “While 90 percent of my work was spent on the overall arrangement, and maybe 10 percent on writing and performing guitar, at the end of the day I want to place myself in an environment I’ve created—a world to explore, one where I can be comfortable and feel at home. I know every last detail of it because I wrote every note—I know exactly where I can go, so I can enjoy myself playing within the musical landscape.”
In the lead up to writing and recording INkBlot, Gottardo devoted himself to the study of orchestration, arrangement, counterpoint, and harmony. In his approach, he emulated the old masters, learning from the same rare music theory texts—many of them centuries old and now out-of-print—that they’d consulted in their time. In these books, Gottardo says, he discovered a foundational musical language that took his composing to a new level. With his freshly sharpened skills, he began working on a new concept—a kind of crossover music incorporating various classical forms with production elements of modern popular music and an arrangement style closer to traditional European orchestration.
“A lot of rock musicians have used an orchestra in the background—Metallica, even KISS did that,” Gottardo says. “It’s very common. With INkBlot, however, I was trying to use the timbre of the guitar in a way where it was part of the ensemble and not just an instrument in front of it. The guitar plays lead on the album, but there are very few solos. So often with instrumental music, the guitar takes the role of the vocalist, but I was more interested in using it as part of a conversation between instruments. This is counterpoint—the art of combining and contrasting two or more different melodies.”
Despite the guitar being Daniele’s primary instrument, most of the writing for INkBlot was done at the piano, with Gottardo searching and experimenting until a mood or direction would emerge. From there, he’d begin composing, typically on Logic Pro, the workflow similar to electronic music, using digital instruments and plug-ins to flesh out ideas. The scores were also prepared on the computer. Once they were ready, Gottardo hit the studio in Italy, recording live musicians playing vintage instruments in small ensembles. “Usually, the foundation is a string quartet,” he says. “In the studio, we used four different rooms, each member of the quartet isolated in their own room. That facilitates editing for a polished result, like a pop album. I wanted it to be a modern production.”
On INkBlot, Gottardo draws influence from wherever his insatiable mind wanders—early 20th Century Russian composers (Stravinsky, Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov), symphonic poems, modern rock and metal and electronic music, Pointillism, German Expressionism, particle physics, bipolar and borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, synesthesia. The album’s title references the famous Rorschach Test, concisely marrying Gottardo’s two greatest passions outside of music—visual art and psychology.
“I get so much inspiration for my work from these two disciplines,” Gottardo says. “I’m interested in understanding how the human mind works. My music reflects how I feel, but not because something in particular happens to me. It’s on a deeper level, more abstract and often existential. I try to make my subconscious speak through the music. INkBlot is dense from a psychoanalytic standpoint, and it’s also very colorful in terms of harmony. I have a background in visual arts and a strong association between color and music. To me, melody is like a drawing, a sketch, an outline—the harmony colors it, and gives depth and dimension. It’s the 3D aspect of music.”
The new album’s opening pair of tracks, “Spirals” and “Blue Salt”—both released as advance singles—are perfect examples of Gottardo’s synesthete-like fascination with harmonic color. “Spirals” uses the guitar to create an impressionistic, pointillistic rain effect, Gottardo blessedly lost in the aural canvas, painting with sound. “Blue Salt” takes this exploration of musical hues even further, with its cascading double-helix dance of ascending sky-blue sharps and descending earth-tone flats. As thepiece develops, these two contrasting moods draw closer and closer, sharps chasing flats and vice-versa, accelerating to dizzying speeds until they finally crash into each other, two galaxies colliding.
Prior to INkBlot, Gottardo released two albums—2010’s Frenzy of Ecstasy and 2014’s Non Temperato, the latter catching the ear of guitar legend Steve Vai, who namechecked Daniele in a Guitar World interview as his favorite new player, praising his “elegant touch, stunning intonation and innovational style.” In addition to Gottardo’s work as a composer and solo artist, he’s also a member of jazz-fusion trio The Nuts, whose swirling, frenetic takes on everything from Miles Davis and Coltrane to Hendrix and Nirvana are as fun as they are jaw-dropping.
“I come from Italy, so there’s a fundamental European quality in my music,” Gottardo says, “but there’s also a strong American influence. I started playing at age 13 when I got into KISS. I like hard rock, classic rock. I also really like bebop—Charlie Parker, Bud Powell. These are my beginnings as a musician, but I am always evolving. To me, it’s very important to continue to have new inspiration, to avoid becoming stagnant in one specific sound. I think this is the reason it takes so long for me to make a new record—because I want to try to do something different from the previous album, sometimes radically different.” This is INkBlot to its core: sprawling, ambitious, visionary, unlike anything previously in Gottardo’s catalog, and unlike anything previously enshrined in the popular or classical canons.
The album’s final track—aptly titled “The Resolution”—was the final piece Gottardo composed for the set. Here, the guitar—a stand-in for the real-life Daniele—actually does step out front, as he gives himself the gorgeously haunting final word, delivered as only his fingers could. As the notes spill out across the canvas he’s created, like blood cells in zero gravity, you can almost see his silhouette in the fog-shrouded distance, waving farewell after the long and twisting sonic odyssey.