Saya’s Album of the Week: En Garde by Ethan Gruska

3 years after the release of his debut record Slowmotionary, Ethan Gruska is finally back with season 2 of cinematic chord changes and sentimental lyrics–but this time he’s introduced a couple of new characters. If you’re not familiar, Gruska is a multi talented producer and songwriter who happens to be the grandson of legendary film composer John Williams. But once you listen to Gruska’s timeless compositions, you’ll soon realize he doesn’t even need the name tie for anyone to be amazed. 

Right from the start, En Garde defines itself as an album of brutal honesty. “Maybe I’ll go nowhere,” Gruska confesses under a muted fingerpicking pattern in the opening track. In “Dialing Drunk”, he struggles to move on from an ex-lover, expressing his pain poetically. It’s stripped down to just vocals and soft piano, contrasting the rest of the album’s abstract production style–but still speaks volumes that no extra bass can bring. Gruska’s advanced piano abilities also allow for him to write some pretty breathtaking arrangements and chord changes–which you can hear in the more minimalist nature of his former record. Songs like “Nervous System” and “Event Horizon” delve more into eccentric territory, while “On The Outside” and “Enough For Now” are more accessible indie rock tunes. The album ends on a nostalgic note with “Teenage Drug”, where he admits he still thinks about his first love.  

You’ll hear some familiar and unexpected voices on a few En Garde tracks–indie rockstar Phoebe Bridgers (whom he also produces for), neo soul icon Lianne La Havas, and singer-songwriter Moses Sumney. But the collaboration that especially stands out is with Lianne La Havas, titled “Haiku4U”. La Havas’ soulful voice paired with Gruska’s cinematic piano and lofi-esque production is completely mesmerizing and will easily put you in a trance. Although the two talented artists come from two slightly different worlds, they have incredible chemistry as writers and musicians, adding their own unique flavors to create a truly unforgettable sound. 

The most significant development Gruska makes from his debut album to En Garde can be described in one word: production. Moses Sumney and Gruska’s voices are encapsulated by a vocoder in “Blood in Rain”, and “Enough for Now” features an instrumental of spooky reversed voices and a highly compressed flute-like synth. Many of the songs include very intricate electronic percussion, another element that was absent from Slowmotionary. The great diversity of styles and sounds in En Garde shows how much Gruska was willing to experiment, even if it meant leaving his comfort zone for a bit. And no matter how offbeat his production gets, it’s never distracting–only enhancing what he had already written beautifully. 

“En Garde” is French for the position you stand in before fencing–in simpler terms, being ready to fight. It’s an ironic title for an album that expresses lots of vulnerability, but it just goes to show that being vulnerable can often be a strength, not a weakness. Ethan Gruska expresses his emotions in the bravest way on En Garde, and listening to it might encourage you to open up too.

Check it out: