Locals: Grayhawk at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing
Photo by Chris Casella

Early in Grayhawk's formation, the musicians envisioned the hard rock band as a throwback, hoping to create an album that would come on like a long-forgotten recording from decades past.

“I think when we first started we just wanted it to sound like … a lost gem that someone had found, like, ‘Oh, it's some band from the '70s that no one ever heard about,” said singer/guitarist Zac Szymusiak, who's joined in the trio by drummer Jack Proctor and bassist/backing vocalist Rob Camstra. “That was sort of our fake idea in our head, and then it just grew from there.”

Gradually, the group shed these formative concepts, employing modern recording techniques and allowing the music to develop organically, untethered by any preset boundaries. Of course, this evolution would have been imperceptible to the general public, since Grayhawk spent the first 18 months of its existence squirreled away from public view, waiting until early 2018 to make its public coming-out with a concert at Spacebar.

“We just constantly wrote. We didn't know how people would respond to it, or if they would even like it, so we kind of just did it for ourselves,” said Szymusiak, who will join his bandmates in celebrating the release of Grayhawk's debut full-length,The Sacred Seal, at Ace of Cups on Friday, Nov. 23. “We almost did it in secret.”

This time stowed away chrysalis-like allowed the band to develop a massive sound in line with the epic storyline at the center of its music, which takes its cues from fantasy role playing games like “Dungeons & Dragons” and is expected to unfold over a trio of albums. (Szymusiak said this first album focuses on the start of the journey, where the narrator is “whisked away to this other world” populated by wizards and swordsmen.)

“I was a creative writing major, so for me it was just a great new way to tell a story,” said Szymusiak, who is also developing the narrative into a choose-your-own-adventure style fantasy novel. “I've always written in very real terms, and it was nice to kind of write something that was in the fantasy realm where anything can happen and you're not dealing with the horrors of modern-day reality. It was kind of an escape, in a way.”

Frequently, the music plays off this narrative, doubling as a score to the widescreen movie unfolding in the band's collective imagination. At times, airy guitar passages play counter to Szymusiak's rumbling, earthy vocals, combining to paint a picture of wind sweeping through a craggy mountain valley. (And are those drums, or the rumbling hooves of marauders setting out on horseback?)

This also explains why the band avoids onstage banter in its concerts, preferring to create an immersive, unbroken experience that can more readily whisk concertgoers to far-off lands.

“It's a 40-minute set straight through with no stops and no audience interaction. Hello, play set, goodbye, let's have a beer,” Szymusiak said. “When you're in a role playing game, or playing a board game or video game, you want to be transported. You don't want anything to take you out of that environment.”

Ace of Cups

8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23

2619 N. High St., Old North


ALSO PLAYING: Akula, Matter of Planets