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Mixed Signals

For a second, all you could hear was a buzz. It was a packed Saturday night at the Larimer Lounge, and Boulder's Signal to Noise had just erupted into yet another epic, surging song. Riffs lunged with ponderous grace and buckled under each other's weight. The vocals drifted in ether before dragging themselves across razor blades. As choppy and chaotic as it was, though, the performance was knotted together by the throb of the rhythm section, a nerve bundle of bass and drums that conducted sound like copper wiring. But then, abruptly, as if a switch had been flipped, the Signal stopped.

"Something broke between my guitar, my amp and my pedals," apologizes Tim Cleary, Signal to Noise's singer/guitarist. "I don't really know what was going on that night. Some kind of loose cable or something."

His sheepish confession, though, doesn't explain it all. Amid a fit of other minor mishaps -- including bassist/singer Tristan Shaffer spastically knocking a monitor speaker off the front of the stage and into the crowd -- Cleary came up short for words. Halfway through a verse, he mumbled for a moment; then, with the hair in his face hiding his chagrin, he informed the crowd that he had indeed forgotten his own lyrics. But he quickly gathered himself and launched back into the song, making up for the gap in communication with a raw-throated, frustrated roar -- typically more Shaffer's style -- that cut against the grain of his ethereal, often whispery croon.

Off stage, Cleary is just as soft-spoken. In fact, on an interviewer's tape recorder, his voice barely climbs above the background din. Which is funny: "Signal to noise" is a technical term that describes the ratio of desired to undesired sound. The lower the ratio, the more faint the transmission. Aptly enough, this friction between the emotional static of life and the impulse to be heard runs deep through Signal to Noise's brand-new, self-titled debut. Its six songs graft together the splintered sounds of the group's predecessors: Cleary, Shaffer and drummer Jesse Dixon all served in One Dying Wish, one of Colorado's promising hardcore outfits of the last few years, while guitarist Nolan Aldridge is a veteran of both the emo-scented Last Chance Diaries and the rock-spewing Swayback. Additionally, Cleary was the last bassist of Shogun, Boulder's sorely missed metal-core colossus.

But Signal to Noise had something else in mind when it came together in 2003. While its music remains rooted in the shattering volume and passion of hardcore, it adopts the moody, dramatic flourish of Muse and My Chemical Romance -- only stripped of those acts' penchant for pretension. "I still listen to hardcore," Cleary explains, "but we just wanted to veer away from that."

"My big thing is melody in vocals," says Shaffer, without a trace of irony -- despite the fact that his shrieks could peel the bark off a redwood. "It just seemed like such a waste to have the entire vocal part of the song be this monotone sort of screaming. There's just such a formula to it."

"I think what we do now is a lot more open-ended than hardcore," Cleary adds. "We can go in a whole lot of different directions."

Or get yanked in them. The tension that tears at Signal to Noise's music is undeniable, and at times even unsettling. From four guys who grew up immersed in everything from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to Def Leppard and the Cars, such disparity is pretty understandable. But listen to tracks like "Buried Weapons" from the band's disc, and you'll feel the pull of unresolved angst and stuttering rhythms taken to a tendon-snapping extreme.

"Me and Nolan are more about the simplicity of easy-to-play rock music," Dixon elaborates, "whereas Tim and Tristan come with thousands of effects pedals." And they know how to use them. In addition to dense power chords and vicious beats, arpeggios echo across vast chasms of atmospheric ambience. Even lost in shrouds of pensive dreaminess, though, the twitch is still there.

"It's really kind of nervous and anxious," says Shaffer. Still, Signal to Noise's newer output -- honed by a recent tour of the West Coast -- is more streamlined and focused, with the pervading sense of pressure manifesting itself more subtly and compellingly in Cleary's lyrics. Lines like "Been too quiet for too long" and "My voice simply cannot carry all the way/Over the mountains and deserts between" internalize the tension, plunging it deep into the heart and guts of the songs.

Of course, when read back some of his own words -- which so plainly yet eloquently express the shortcomings of human communication -- the singer practically shuts down. "I guess...I don't know. They're just sort of really vague ideas, like, what's going on with me and stuff," Cleary murmurs. "If I put too much though into it, I get too critical. I don't really talk about my lyrics all that often."

"Is he blushing? Yeah, he's blushing!" his bandmates yell, laughing.

"They're all about his girlfriend," Aldridge jabs.

Cleary just looks at them, lost. Luckily, Shaffer steps up with an assessment of his own: "I've been playing with Tim for over three years now, and the things I've noticed going through his lyrics are pretty melancholy. They're definitely about disassociation and just not getting through. The frustration of not connecting."

After the show at the Larimer the other night, the whole group knows that feeling all too well. But technical difficulties aside, Signal to Noise rocked -- and perhaps, in its own imperfection, allowed even more of its raw humanity to come in loud and clear.

"I don't know if not being heard is really a big issue with me. I guess that just, over time, you go to say a lot less than when you're a kid," Cleary theorizes. "It just comes from learning to shut up after a while." Not that such reticence keeps Signal to Noise from ripping shit up on stage. But even Shaffer, who sketches out his own sets of auxiliary lyrics, can have a hard time tuning into the Cleary channel.

"Sometimes I wing it," the bassist admits with a grin, "because even I don't know what he's saying."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

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