I first listened to 8 Bit Monk, Woven’s debut, because of a particularly bold piece of PR flimflammery. Any band described as Deftones meeting Aphex Twin deserved a spin, I figured, if for no other reason than because it was likely to be awful. But while that particular compliment did wind up being wishful thinking (to be kind), the album nonetheless pleasantly surprised me. Woven’s music had an even more tenuous connection to the hated pseudo-genre of nu-metal than the Deftones’, and 8 Bit Monk spends much of its length in its own digitally psychedelic shell, only occasionally flexing what seemed to be considerable muscles (you got the sense they could have played heavy metal if they wanted to). One of the best tracks was the lengthiest, as the band skillfully deployed the nearly eight minutes of “Sync or Swim” to build towards a series of climaxes more graceful and explosive than you might have thought they could handle.
It didn’t make my end of year list, and I don’t think it would now, but it was one of the nicest surprises of 2003, a minor triumph comfortably and confidentially ensconced in its own, relatively unique style. Now that the band has finally been able to follow it up with Designer Codes, I was hoping that they might have improved on the weaknesses that occasionally poked through on their debut (often mawkish lyrics, a tendency to take their sound too far into either ambience or hippieish ‘good vibes’, lack of a good internal editor) as well as giving me more of what I liked about 8 Bit Monk (surprisingly sturdy songcraft given their diffuse sound, the fluidity and flexibility of their sonics, their refusal to abandon either the more aggressive or more psychedelic aspects of their approach).
But instead of that, for better or for worse, Designer Codes is, if anything, a stronger example of the things that make Woven both an interesting and sometimes a frustrating band. The run from the briefly shuddering opening instrumental “Trumpeting Strength” through to the harshly implosive “One” is promising, even if “Where We Going” has lyrics vague enough to be either half-baked political commentary or half-baked existential crisis. Then the band lapses into the eight-minute “Do You Feel the Same?,” which is largely an exercise in stasis, repeating the title ad nauseum over prowling bass and intermittently interesting abstract ambience. As a shorter interlude it might have worked, but it cripples the momentum Woven had been building, and the album never quite gets it back.
There are good songs in the second half of Designer Codes—“Cosmonaut” is the most straightforwardly fiery track Woven have yet pulled off, and the closing “She Blows My Amplifier” the most gentle—but over fourteen tracks and a bit more than an hour, you begin to suffer fatigue. One of the most compelling aspects of 8 Bit Monk was the way it worked as a focused, cohesive statement even as individual tracks drifted out of focus, to the point that you’d sometimes have trouble remembering which hook belonged to which track. Designer Codes has a handful of songs that are the strongest Woven has released to date (“Fragments”, “One”, “Cosmonaut”), but also the first real filler they’ve produced, and as a whole it suffers as a result.
But the potential Woven displayed on their debut is still very evident. Here, the band worked in a vacuum, writing/performing/producing/mixing all the songs themselves, and it might be that what they need now is a strong outside voice, whether in the producer’s chair or not, to help them craft the classic that it seems, more now than ever, might lurk inside the band. Designer Codes isn’t it, but as another showcase for their compellingly unique sound, it deserves to attract attention.