Prime Cuts: Ocean, A Million Suns, Scandal of Grace
To love Hillsong United is to know them. But it is hard to know this Australian band when they have been suffering from an identity crisis for years. Often Hillsong United has been egregiously overlooked as the youthful counterpart of the adult-oriented Hillsong Live. And such an oversight is understandable because Hillsong United really did start out off as a dependent youth ministry of the Australian mega church. Way back in 1998 Worship Pastor Darlene Zschech suggested to Reuben Morgan and Marty Sampson that the youth ministries of the church should record their own CDs resulting in their debut live album "Everyday." Over the years, United Live (later changed to Hillsong United) has always been caricatured as the rowdier version of Hillsong Live. However, after 11 full length albums (including two studio collections), "Zion" is a tour-de-force ready to stake its claim that Hillsong United has a face and it is not just a mere stepchild of the church. While Hillsong Live has a high quotient of charged-up energy sing-a-long anthems, the songs on "Zion" are less melodious and less commercially accessible. But the trump card here is that these tracks are intricately artful - they are like little movies slowly building themselves with the piling of layers and layers of sounds enhanced by the understated shimmering of emotions. Unlike their previous albums where they would recycle songs that have already appeared on their Hillsong Live main albums, all the tracks here are new. Also, they have conspicuously reduced the number of lead worshippers and writers to create a tighter identity across the album. Gone are previous United leaders such as Marty Sampson, Annie Garrett, Brooke Fraser, Hayley Law, Jill McCloghry and Sam Knock. Rather, leads this time are handled mainly by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston, Jad Gillies, Jonathon Douglass, Dave Ware and newcomer Taya Smith.
With this release, though there may be many departures for Hillsong United, there is one thing that remains constant across their albums: God. The major reason why this record is so good is because God comes across these 13 tracks (18 for the deluxe version) as so irresistibly good that it makes you want to dance, sing and praise. Of everything that excels with the album opener "Relentless"-the crisp drumming, the breathy passion of Matt Crocker's vocals, and the electronically induced drums-the highlight is still God. The way Crocker describes how God "carries us, covers us... with your endless grace" is so contagious that you can help but want to dance along. And God doesn't get any better than when His Son was on the Cross. Again led by Crocker "Scandal of Grace" is one of the best expositions of the Cross of Jesus Christ set to music. New worship leader Taya Smith, who has a soprano not that dissimilar to Jill McCloghry, takes the lead on "Ocean." "Ocean" is not your typical Hillsong ballad-rather, starting off slow like the gentle waves clapping on the floor of the beach before building with a cinematic anticipation to a tsunami explosion of God's greatness, this almost 9-minute drama is a mini-movie set to music that is just breathtaking.
Often the music of Hillsong has often been maligned for its lack of lyrically depth. But "A Million Suns" is out to .prove those critics wrong. Scott Ligertwood (who wrote the brilliant "I Desire Jesus" from "Cornerstone") teams with Dean Ussher to write about the glory of God outshining like "A Million Suns." The word across the rumor mill is that "A Million Suns" will also (deservingly) appear on Hillsong Live's 2013's album. Jad Gillies, who arguably has the biggest and strongest voice, gives a slow rousing take of the Coldplay-esque ballad "Love is War." Again this is not your cognitively inept worship number, but this is a brilliant piece that sets our struggle to fight to trust God against the backdrop of God's grace. "Tapestry" calls to mind "Awakening" from their previous studio album, it is a slow burner exalting God's intricately woven plans for our lives.
Though this is a brilliantly orchestrated record with God-honoring themes, it's honestly difficult to listen right through the record. Some of the songs are so long and nebulous that it's a far cry from the catchy worship favorites such as "Hosanna" or "Bones" or "Break Free." Also, if these songs are to be used for church worship, many smaller churches without the benefits of multiple synths may have problems replicating the ambiance created in many of the songs. With "Zion," Hillsong United have come a long way. They have really carved a niche for themselves with their gorgeously produced disc but sometimes roots are important too. If they could throw in a few Brooke Fraser or Reuben Morgan or even Darlene Zschech compositions and tighten the reins on the melodic loops of some of the songs, things would be even better.