Once you start thinking of Helms Alee's Sleepwalking Sailor like it's the soundtrack to The Odyssey, there's no going back. Each track feels like the next treacherous chapter in a landscape of gorgons and angry gods, where mere mortals die smashed against rocks by an uncaring sea. The Seattle sludge band mixes mathy, stoner rock with melodies so piercing and pretty they evoke pinpoints of light in an otherwise gray and stormy backdrop. If you took the Pixies' Bossanova on a trip through the Norwegian fjords you might get something like this album.
It's possible that last time I saw Helms Alee perform in Missoula there were more than three people playing, but it's also possible I imagined it because the band's sound is so elephantine. The trio makes noise that expands to fill every corner of a room. Here's a thought: What if they performed in a cathedral? The way bassist Dana James' and guitarist Ben Verellen's vocals seem to float like a mystical hymn, they wouldn't be so out of place among the wooden pews and under a looming ceiling. The stained glass might explode, of course.
There are some odd sections in the songs that seem out of place, like the melodramatic, rock-opera beginning of "Fetus. Carcass." But mostly, Sleepwalking Sailors accurately captures the peaks and valleys of an epic adventure. The hailstorm-like fury of Hozoji Margullis' drums ground the dark clouds of reverb. The melodies add just enough luminosity. The best moments are when you feel the instruments leading you—as if through the underworld—like a torch. That is, when there's something to hold onto in all the chaos.
Helms Alee plays the ZACC basement, along with Abe Coley, Swamp Ritual and Chemical Lawns, Thu., March 20, at 8 PM. $6 advance at Ear Candy. All ages.