When last we left the local ambient-art-rock group INTENSITY!, it had just released a two-song album of nearly 50 minutes with the title The Stone of Madness. So we might call It All Starts Tomorrow progress toward something that at least acknowledges convention. INTENSITY!’s latest has a whopping eight tracks (averaging less than 10 minutes a pop, with two actually clocking in under five minutes), a title that doesn’t suggest Dungeons & Dragons, and many stunning passages and tracks. The band seems to understand – as Robert Fripp did with King Crimson in the 1990s – that short experimental pieces can provide nice punctuation to and breaks from long-form explorations.

It All Starts Tomorrow shows growth on a number of fronts. Shorter tracks put the music in bite-size pieces, and they seem more finished. Although most of the pieces are still quite long, they go down easily and seem shorter than they actually are.

The five-piece outfit – featuring Jim McFarlen, Butch Karn, Sergei Czerewko, Pat Ross, and Steve Rose – still specializes in jazzy progressive rock, and it’s still dominated by haunting, distorted, and subdued lines of the guitar and electric violin. The trouble with the improvisational sound is that it often recedes into the background, begging for some instrument or melody to leap out and grab your attention. Some pieces tend to be so patient that they can fray the nerves.

That’s certainly the problem at the start of It All Starts Tomorrow. The opening two tracks, “The Bowery El Effect (It All Starts Tomorrow)” and “The Projectornist” blend together too well and build too slowly, leaving the album with a soft lump of nearly half an hour at its start.

But there are still 45 solid minutes after that. “Lost and Found” shows INTENSITY! offering its wealth of musical ideas in a condensed form, to great effect. The bass-heavy track has a nice melodic line that slowly emerges and draws the listener in.

While the appropriately titled “Are We There Yet?” still runs 15 minutes long, it’s broken into two nearly equal and compelling parts. It opens in a way that suggests trip-hop, and the last half gets nearly funky with its frenetic bass and drums. “The Iridium Layer,” meanwhile, has the dirty feel of industrial apocalypse about it.

If The Stone of Madness gave the impression of fantasy literature, It All Starts Tomorrow seems to be looking forward. I can imagine this record as a soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s classic silent film Metropolis. (There also seems to be an interesting mix of technology mixed with the primitive on the cover artwork by Katie Kiley.)

And then there’s the morbid humor of “Long Live the King (The Elvis Trip),” which incorporates (apparent) recordings of Elvis over music that at first sounds like an ascent into heaven (or an abduction by aliens) before it devolves into hellish discord. The piece has a light touch that’s typically absent from progressive rock, and it’s a surprising (and welcome) addition.

For more information about INTENSITY!, visit the band’s Web site at (http://www.intenseprojects.com). It All Starts Tomorrow in available at Quad Cities’ Co-Op Records.

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