HILLSONG UNITED TREADS NEW GROUND ON ‘ZION’
ALBUM TITLE: Zion
ARTIST: Hillsong United
BEST TRACK/S: “Scandal of Grace,” “Oceans,” “Relentless”
OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5
I still remember my look of consternation when the opening strains of “Relentless,” the first track off “Zion,” the 2013 release of Australian praise and worship outfit Hillsong United. Expecting big guitars, big drums, and big vocals, “Relentless” started off with a hypnotic synth line and Matt Crocker’s low breathy vocals, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from a group that gave us Christian praise anthems like “King of Majesty” and “Salvation is Here.”
Truth be told, IMHO, “Zion” is probably the album Hillsong United was created to make. After years of being pigeon-holed as the younger, noisier version of Hillsong’s massively successful praise and worship team, it was time to step out and create a clear identity for itself, and did United deliver. “Zion” is not your run-of-the-mill Hillsong United album. With Matt Crocker and Joel Houston at the helm, United has created an album that may very well be that game-changer that will define studio-release Contemporary praise and worship for the next few years. Either that, or “Zion” will be that ahead-of-its-time opus that falls flat despite its many, many positive qualities. Of course, the latter scenario is least likely, because Zion is masterfully written, masterfully produced, and masterfully executed. The Master, naturally, would be proud.
Lead single “Scandal of Grace” is arguably the most radio-friendly of the tracks on “Zion,” but its lyrics are anything but radio fodder. The opening line alone – “Oh grace, what have you done? Murdered for me on the cross!” – will certainly take the listener aback, because that’s what Christ’s death is, at face value. An innocent man sent to die in the place of another. It’s raw, it seems wrong, it is certainly scandalous — and in “Scandal of Grace,” Hillsong United has crafted a new way to look at Jesus’ death in a way that both shocks and awes the listener when he finally realizes what Jesus did that he may be reunited with God through grace. It’s 50 shades of wow.
Apart from “Scandal of Grace,” clear standouts on “Zion” include “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)” – a stunning Taya Smith-led worship anthem bordering on epic, with the track clocking in at 8:56 – and “Tapestry,” noteworthy for its poetic lyrics and unexpected percussion work. United also takes a few musical firsts on this release. “Mercy Mercy” has both music box-inspired opening and a dance floor synth pulsing quietly in the background. The atmospheric strains of “Nothing Like Your Love” feel almost Coldplay-esque in their spareness. Jad Gillies’ “Love is War” features a soaring synth line alongside his powerful declaration of loyalty – “I will fight to follow, I will fight for love, to throw my life forever into the triumph of the Son,” because, hey, love is war.
What surprises me most is that “Zion” isn’t afraid to look back at how far music has come, taking inspiration and breathing new life into what would have been cheesy instrumentation in the hands of less inspired – or cocky – musicians. It almost appears that the driving guitars that served as the signature of previous Hillsong United releases take a back seat so that synths can come into full play, adding a tip o’ the hat to 80s afficionados who grew up with the synths that came with new wave. Noticeable for its synth work are “Up in Arms,” “Heartbeats,” and “Stay and Wait,” one of my personal favorites on this release, thanks to the vertical worship in the verses and its irresistible singalong chorus.
By the time we get to the bare-naked worship of “King of Heaven,” where after the complex layers of all the previous songs, all we have left are a piano, a string section, and voices singing God’s praise, we’re spent. We join in the chorus: “Emmanuel! God with us! Emmanuel! Hallelujah!” and take a step back from “Zion.” There are many highs; I also hesitate to call the un-highs, lows; rathers, they’re welcome opportunities to just take a breath from the ambitious opus that is “Zion.”
Having said all of this, I know I like “Zion,” and the album is certainly ambitious. However, it’s not a radio-friendly record, and with its heavy reliance on electronica and long track times, I don’t see many churches being able to select tracks from this release for use in their services. There are some tracks that are may become worship standards, but for the most part, the production and execution of “Zion” makes for an emotional roller-coaster that feels more epic movie soundtrack than praise and worship release. And that’s the conundrum. Because God is all over “Zion.” I would be quite surprised if one did not hear from or experience God in one way or another while listening to “Zion.”
Disclosure: A review copy of Zion was provided for review by House of Praise, from whom you may purchase the deluxe edition of Zion.