With 2010’s Fluorescent Youth, Conditions shattered my casual appreciation for a few older songs and converted me to a full-out fan. The strength of that record blew the band’s previous work out of the water and established a sound that was truly their own. Full Of War finds the group continuing and expanding upon that defined voice with a follow-up that, though not quite as strong as its predecessor, stands on its own as a solid piece of work. If you like emotional, vocal-driven rock with a cohesive message, you can’t afford to miss out on this record.
Lead single “Walking Separate Ways” starts the album off on a high note, with atmospheric drums and isolated vocals drawing you in before the song kicks into high gear. Full of lines delivered with the concerned inflection lead vocalist Brandon Roundtree made familiar on Fluorescent Youth, the track’s lyrics serve as a thesis for the rest of the record, focusing on a dichotomy of personality and the push and pull between two sides of the same person. Lines like “I’m caught between two lives, and every second I’m awake, I check reflections so I won’t forget my face,” when coupled with the massive melody of the chorus, make for exactly the sort of earworm fans have grown to expect from Conditions. It’s clear to see why they chose to release this song first. As the guitar intro of “Skeleton” makes way for the pounding drums that propel the track forward, Roundtree’s vocals take center stage, sounding huge throughout. Unfortunately, the lyrics fall a little flat. Though they’re sung with as much conviction as anything the band’s done, the words seem a little generic at times, and the power of one or two well-written lines is brought down by a number of others that don’t quite hit as hard. This is a minor gripe; every sonic element here is spot-on.
For every ounce “Open Eyes” lets up on aggression, it adds a pound of emotion and dynamic. From the juxtaposition of Alex Howard’s intensely fast guitar riffing and Roundtree’s deliberate vocal melody in the verses to the soaringly positive choruses to the tremendous bridge with its powerful lyricism and fantastic drumming, the band truly flexes its compositional and songwriting abilities with this one. “Best Mistake” sounds like Conditions took a trip to the late ’80s, turned up the fuzz on Corey Thomas’ bass, and let someone from The Cure play keys with them. While it’s an interesting take on the band’s sound, the added electronic elements and chopped up vocal effects seem to be more of a distraction than anything, taking away from what’s otherwise a really strong track.
“Love Elusive” feels like it was written specifically for the stage, with its injected count-in and free, live-sounding introduction. Ryan Tinsley tears up the drums throughout and Roundtree sounds as good as he ever has, with lines like “if you hunt for a word, the feeling will never come” and “you’re only melting in the sun, tear those wings off, you are one of us” standing out as particularly memorable lines. All in all, this is another album highlight. “Wonderful Lie” has a meandering feel to it, like a long walk with nothing but introspective thought dictating direction and duration. While much of the band’s material has a strong, balanced opinion driving the lyrics, this one is a different sort of mature, coming off a bit like a commentary on the group’s own work. It’s a good song, and one that works well in the middle of the record.
With each listen, “Every Day Is a New Life” feels more and more like it’s intended to be the first song of a Side B, even if it’s not presented quite that way. Picking up in a different direction from where “Wonderful Lie” left off, the song observes a level of generational complacency and settling and preaches a message similar to the one expressed in “Better Life” – to live like you’re alive. There are plenty of memorable guitar lines throughout, and it is another strong track. “Descent of Man” kicks everything up another notch, with its vivid language and masterful pre-choruses. Howard’s guitar work on this song is particularly creative, both in terms of his riffs and the variance of tone throughout. “What We Wait For” is this album’s deceptive cadence, spacing everything out and bringing back a number of themes. It’s a moving piece of work that is among the strongest songs the band has written, and its only flaw is that it doesn’t close the record.
“Long Division” carries on Full of War like a variation movement in response to “What We Wait For,” taking a different tone and standing as a confident statement of conviction to contrast the preceding song’s more questioning character. If you’re really listening, there’s a great deal to appreciate about “Long Division.” However, more casual listens might allow the song to simply slide on by with little notice. Whether that’s a result of production or due to a more restrained hook, the simple fact is that this is a really good song that’s easy to miss. When “Not Giving Up…Not Yet” opens with an R&B-styled beat, the unexpected style draws you in, though the track eschews those elements as quickly as they appeared, falling back into a more familiar sound to close out the record. Full of determination and desire, the song grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Though I could do without the repeating “not yet, not yet, not yet” in the chorus, the track fits the tone of the record and serves as an appropriate ending to Full of War.
The idea of the “sophomore slump” is a common trope in music culture. We’re always comparing new to old, and have the tendency to let personal connections to powerful things from our past cloud opinion-making processes when we finally wrap our ears around eagerly anticipated new material. Fluorescent Youth was the sort of record that was bound to leave a massive cloud. Maybe it’s good to set benchmarks by the things we love, but it also forces new things to match up against old things that have months and years of built-up relationships and memories, and it’s the rare follow-up that survives this sort of test unscathed. Listening to Full of War is a treat. There are plenty of well-written songs, and this fills a sonic void that 2013 had yet to fulfill. Conditions is a band that remains passionate about everything it does, and that quality shines through in the group’s songwriting and musicianship. You should listen to this record. However, I can’t help but hear these songs and think about how they fall barely short of the ones from the debut. Full of War is not a regression, and it’s certainly not a failure. It just doesn’t hit me the way I wanted it to. I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump, but it’s not quite the comeback of the year.