A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Lacuna Coil, James Otto, Venus Hum.

ITALIAN IMPORTS: Lacuna Coil launched a U.S. tour this week, about a year after the Italian metal act released its third album, "Comalies." While the group is far from a household name, the trek will celebrate one of the larger success stories in underground metal this year.

LacunaLacuna Coil's theatrical, goth-leaning metal, accentuated with flamboyant keyboard arrangements and alternating male/female vocals, found a receptive audience in the Eastern U.S. Boston, in particular, where homegrown acts such as Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage have ignited a passion for indie metal, became one of the larger champions of the group. The city's WAAF has been playing the single "Heaven's a Lie," and invited the group to perform at its September festival, alongside Staind and Sevendust.

"Heaven's a Lie," with its horror soundtrack keyboards running circles around pounding guitars, stands out with the contrasting vocals of Christina Scabbi and Andrea Ferro. The two pass the song back and forth, with Ferro's anguished yell representing the frustration that Scabbi's lighter, vocal operatics only hint at. If Scabbi rides the melody, Ferro stabs at it.

Other radio stations throughout the country have started to pick up the song, including stations in Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Mich. The band recently shot a new video for the song, and the clip should debut on MTV2 and Fuse later this year. In addition to the success of "Heaven's a Lie," Lacuna Coil has spent the past year stretching its fanbase and building credibility by touring with such acts as Opeth, Anthrax and Type O Negative.

In one year, "Comalies," released by L.A.-based indie Century Media, has sold 31,000 units in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. It also gave Lacuna Coil its first album to reach any of Billboard's charts. The release peaked last month at No. 3 on the magazine's regional Heatseekers chart for the Northeast.

Lacuna Coil will be touring North America through Dec. 15.


JamesOTTO THE GATE: Country singer James Otto is making an impact right now on country radio, but his debut album won't be in stores until early 2004. It may have been able to be finished a little sooner, but then superstar Shania Twain entered the picture.

Otto, a former member of the U.S. Navy, had been toiling around the Nashville music scene since about 1998. A chance meeting with producer Scott Parker, who has worked with Yolanda Adams and Patty Loveless, among others, helped Otto break free from a future of singing in nameless cover bands.

The two went into the studio, and demos they recorded caught the attention of Mercury Nashville. The label's Shania Twain like what she heard, and Otto went from playing Nashville clubs to Madison Square Garden in New York. Otto is on the road with Twain until she completes the U.S. leg of her tour next month.

The outing has given Otto, who counts James Taylor and Hank Williams among his major influences, instant mainstream exposure. His single, "Days of Our Lives," debuted last week on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles Sales chart at No. 61.

The piano-based ballad, co-written with Bobby Terry (Trace Adkins, Faith Hill), is slated to be the title track of Otto's first full-length, and it's flying off the shelves in country markets. The song entered Billboard's Hot Country Singles Sales tally at No. 4 last week.

Otto continues to work on his debut, which features production work from Parker and Mark Wright (Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn). A dozen of the album's songs are available for preview on Otto's official Web site.


VenusHEAR THE HUM: Armed with a love of electronic music and show tunes, Annette Strean headed to Nashville as a budding songwriter. Strean, however, didn't have a whole lot of country in her, and met the like-minded Tony Miracle, who had built his own basement studio where he and pal Kip Kubin could explore their love of all things '80s.

This was essentially the genesis of electronic trio Venus Hum. Formed in 1999, the group's electro-pop sound easily stood out in the Nashville scene. While the band's synth-driven tunes are drenched with '80s techno tricks, it's the vocals of Strean that help set Venus Hum apart. Even on the upbeat singles such as "Montana" and "Soul Sloshing" she sounds as if she's playing the role of Bjork in a Broadway show.

The band soon started attracting attention outside of Nashville. In the summer of 2002, the act performed at one of Larry Tee's Electroclash festivals in New York, and was later tapped to open for Stereolab at the group's Nashville date. The band released a self-titled debut and EP on independent Mono-Fi Records.

MCA Records then snatched the band up to release "Big Beautiful Sky" last spring. Outside of the Midwest, the album didn't make much noise, but the band's singles are starting to erupt on the club scene. Of course, that happened after the trio received a little help from the Blue Man Group, who tapped Venus Hum to appear on the single "I Feel Love," a song that was featured prominently in the season premiere of ABC's "Alias."

"Big Beautiful Sky" has yet to dent any of Billboard's major charts, but "I Feel Love" has spent five weeks on Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, peaking at No. 11 last week. Further down, the trio's "Soul Sloshing" rests at No. 22.

Venus Hum will be touring with the Blue Man Group through the end of the month.