CHIODOS "Bone Palace Ballet" (Equal Vision Records) 3 stars
A funny thing happened on the way to Chiodos' second album: The Michigan band got big.
By the time the sextet settled into a Kentucky studio early this summer to record the follow-up to its 2005 debut, vocalist Craig Owens and company had secured a solid spot on the indie-rock map - thanks in no small part to industrious online emo networking and seemingly nonstop touring that included Warped and Taste of Chaos tour gigs.
The new "Bone Palace Ballet" is the sound of a young band clearly feeling its oats: Confident in its musical ideas, poised in their execution, Chiodos slices and dices through 10 tracks of antsy art-rock filtered through a hardcore-metal prism. Though at times less passionate than it is overwrought, the record is undeniably big, anguished and intense, slipping deceptively catchy hooks into its off-kilter melodies.
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With a fetish for B-movies and genuine if cliche d affection for poet Charles Bukowski, Chiodos stealthily broke out of Flint bars and made its national name by tapping the sizable teen appetite for heady, emotional music with the energy of punk and the breadth of a symphony. "Bone Palace Ballet" brazenly steps up the approach, with tracks as musically busy as their titles: "I Didn't Say I Was Powerful, I Said I Was a Wizard," "Bulls Make Money, Bears Make Money, Pigs Get Slaughtered."
It's a grand, theatrical, even hammy record, occasionally so over the top you wonder if there's supposed to be a knowing wink attached. Baroque strings crash against Euro-metal guitar leads; dark synths burrow into towering arrangements with the whiplash breaks and changes of prog-rock. Even the lowest-key material - the ballads "Intensity in Ten Cities" and "A Letter From Janelle" - moves with a showy sense of urgency, and the band finds comfy ground between Queen and Queensryche in songs like "Life is a Perception of Your Own Reality."
But the bulk of the drama comes courtesy of Owens, whose mastery of the modern hard-core vocal finds him twisting, tugging and shredding his high tenor through a series of angst-filled tracks. "Screaming from the inside of me, a lonely and pleading phantasm," he trembles on the album's best cut, "Lexington."
Despite the edgy introspection, it's not always easy to feel the real heart among Chiodos' majestically sculpted works. Still, a connection has obviously been made: The album sailed in at No. 5 on this week's Billboard 200, and the band is primed for a headlining tour expected to draw sold-out crowds. For a Michigan band that appears to be brimming over with creativity, the future looks bright indeed.
KT TUNSTALL - "Drastic Fantastic" (Virgin) 3 stars
So what do you do for an encore after your first album becomes a smash hit? For the 32-year-old Scottish singer and songwriter Tunstall, you don't sit still and rest on your laurels. Coming out barely 18 months after her U.S. debut, "Eye To the Telescope," "Drastic Fantastic" is an engaging and irresistible effort that shows absolutely no signs of a sophomore slump.
Tunstall's gift for melodic hooks is still much in evidence here, but overall her sound is a bit tougher and more aggressive than before, as on the album's edgy opener "Little Favours" and up-tempo first single, "Hold On." Rather than merely trying to mimic past glories such as the now-ubiquitous song "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" off her debut, she actually wants to - gasp - grow as an artist, with ballads "White Bird" and "Beauty of Uncertainty" showing a remarkable degree of artistic growth and sophistication.
CHAMPIAN FULTON WITH DAVID BERGER & THE SULTANS OF SWING - "Champian" (Such Sweet Thunder) 3 stars
In her early 20s, vocalist Champian Fulton is full of promise and maturity beyond her years. You can hear it in the charismatic snap of her phrasing and diction, her conversational expression and the suppleness of her swing - you can't manufacture the relaxed momentum she generates on a jump tune like "They Didn't Believe Me" or the bedroom allure she injects into a ballad like "The Gypsy."
Her pitch can wander, and her clarified vowels and foggy basement sometimes lean too much on idols Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. But her musicianship is compelling; she even plays convincing Erroll Garner-inspired piano on "You Turned the Tables On Me."
David Berger's crafty big band arrangements percolate in mid-century fashion, raising the ghosts of Jimmie Lunceford and others. The haze of nostalgia is thick at times, but Berger's Latin-modal frame for Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" has a contemporary pop, and the timeless sophistication of the orchestral ballad writing on "This Is Always" is its own reward. Fulton's satiny vocal here is so warm, perspicacious and personal that it's hard to believe she was born in 1985.