Sitting leisurely in front of cheap Christmas lights in what looks like an overcrowded rehearsal room, the Hillsong United team are a thousand miles away from the blinding house lights of the 20,000 people packed Staples Center. As the album cover reflects its content, "Zion Acoustic Sessions" is far removed from the cinematic state-of-the-art pop of its earlier counterpart "Zion." Rather than the utilization of the latest electronics, the layers of sound and the savvy use of technologies, giving "Zion Acoustic Sessions" its sinew among other things are the use of bells, acoustic guitars, a cacophony of voices and some old fashioned sounding drums. Further, with the album cover's deliberate blur without an emphatic focus placed on the faces of any of 11 worship team members, the album likewise doesn't for a moment want us to idolize any of its team members. Rather, all of these songs are solely focused on Jesus who is essentially the cynosure of this record. However, in the light of our money pinching economy and the fact that the original version of "Zion" was released 8 months ago, is it justifiable for us to fork out another $9.99 for the acoustic version of 12 tracks which have all been released before?
The answer to this pressing question is a resounding "yes." Basically, there are two approaches one could take to generate an acoustic version of a hugely successful album. First, one could simply minimize the cost and effort by editing out all the electric instruments on the original record and replace them with unplugged musical apparatus. However, such is not the modus operandi of this Australian youthful church team. Rather, each of these 12 songs are re-told, re-imagined and re-interpreted for a whole different audience. Instead of just catering to their stadium loving Sunday evening worshipping crowd, "Zion the Acoustic Sessions" functions more like devotional stories narrated for a Friday night Bible study group or for the individual in the midst of his or her personal worship. Album opener "Relentless," for instance, shies away from the synth-soaked atmospherics and the celestial haze of the original. Rather, "Relentless" features a folk-like guitar base with the energetic passion coming from Matt Crocker's high reaching powerhouse tenor.
Taya Smith on her rendition of the hugely popular "Oceans" shows us this is more than her punch in her time card session work. Rather, if you listen closely, you will hear her whispering with that desperate heart's cry, "Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders." It is as if Smith has just articulated for us what our heavy hearts are trying to say when we are overwhelmed by the oceans of trials. "Love is War," which comes from the pen of Joel Houston is one of the best musical treatises to be written against the idolatries of the self and pride. Assisting him in his marshalling against such sins is the brilliant use of a battle chant of human voices and some militant sounding drums. This time around "Scandal of Grace" has a rootsier interpretation that dresses this theologically rich paean about the atrocity of the Cross in a more plebeian accessible way.
While the original "Mercy Mercy" has a layered synth ethereal wrapping, the acoustic counterpart still retains much of the dreamy worship tenor without the stacked electronic varnish. Perhaps the only setback to this record is that though they have taken "Zion (Interlude)" out of the track list, they have not stock it up with a new song or two. Certainly, given their prodigious pool of writers, it wouldn't too much if they had thrown a new song or two. Nevertheless, "Zion the Acoustic Sessions," unlike most of Hillsong United's albums has a warmer and a more matured sound. And for those who are into trivial pursuits, this is also their first album to actually feature recognizable faces on their album front.
Zion Acoustic Sessions "Relentless" - Hillsong United