Picture five musicians shadow dancing on a butterfly’s wings, and you’ll begin to understand the fragile grace of San Francisco’s Beasts of Paradise. Eda Maxym’s vocal incantations oscillate far above the earth, even as the multitude of instruments used to make the music flutter and spin span its far reaches. At the center are Nancy Kaspar’s double bass, Geoffrey Gordon’s exotic array of percussion and Stephen Kent’s didgeridoo-though it’s not as prominent as with his other outfit, Trance Mission. Combined, they create enough gravitational pull to balance Maxym’s drifting vocals and Barbara Imhoff’s feathery harp.
The title track of the five-song debut is a mix of atypical rhythms, with both Middle Eastern and Indian lilts. Aside from the harp and didgeridoo, the record’s instrumentation includes dumbek, Zambian drums and world music master Jai Uttal’s dotar. Kenneth Newby, a percussionist in Trance Mission, shows off his exotic throat singing. Despite the loose arrangement, “Nobody Knew the Time” is the most grounded of the tracks, and the best vehicle for Maxym’s wafting vocals. Both “Falling” and “Limehouse Chambers,” which employs a toy piano and one-string rebab, are as ephemeral as tide pool in the Sahara. But Maxym’s introspective presence keeps the songs from evaporating completely. Buzzcocks fans may balk at harps taking the place of electric guitar on a cover of “Why Can’t I Touch It,” but Maxym makes the question her own.
Gathered on the Edge was produced by Simon Tassano, a former bandmate of Kent’s in Lights in a Fat City. The instrumental augmentation again runs the gamut: ngoma, kanjira, tabla, marimba. “Flickering Blue” is the group’s most cohesive track to date. The dreamy music offsets darkly veiled lyrics: “Work all day sleep all night/Live in the cracks in between.” Kent’s haunting didgeridoo on “Red Rock” is an ideal setting for Maxym’s enchanting cry about our disintegrating environment. And the Beasts’ soothing tones on “River” are an elegant canvas for Maxym’s heavy thoughts about the loss of innocence. Several tracks start out soft and serene and gradually turn more earthly and upbeat-an approach that keeps the mood from becoming too pensive-and the jazzy groove of “The Smile” (based on a William Blake poem) keeps the album from getting lost in its own sentiment.