Review Summary: Hillsong United makes growing up look easier than it is.
There's little doubt that if contemporary Christian worship music has a defining band, it's Hillsong United. Over the past decade they've created many of the most popular worship songs used in churches throughout the world, and developed the genre far beyond the often-dull endless repetition of earlier contemporary worship through creative lyrics and instrumentation. But United's sound is so identifiable – and so often imitated – that one wonders how many more albums they can keep cranking out before running completely out of ideas.
Aftermath is a difficult album to evaluate because its innovation works for and against it. It is their second studio album but has a wholly different character from their first studio record, the phenomenal All Of The Above, as well as their previous live albums. You know you're in for a long journey when the opening track is nearly eight minutes long and moves along at a snail's pace compared to the fist-pumping anthems that usually begin their albums. 'Take Heart' is a good, if unexpected, way to start the album even if it's too long for its own good and feels more like it belongs halfway through another album. The second song 'Go' returns the band to more familiar territory with its fast pace and spiky guitars, but it also hints at the greater role keyboards play throughout the album. It's a nice song, but there are a handful of similar, better songs in this vein on their past albums.
'Like An Avalanche' slows things down again, but its desperate, darker tone and haunting keyboards show that the band is expanding beyond their bipolar tendencies to power-rock anthems and long, emotional ballads to explore a wider range of emotions. 'Rhythms Of Grace' follows is another standout track that starts innocuously but builds up to a beautiful instrumental interplay between the drums and piano. When they're allowed to shine, Hillsong's vast well of talented instrumentalists certainly stand out.
The title track 'Aftermath' is too minimalist for its own good, and despite its nice lyrics sounds dull. The instrumental 'B.E.' feels like filler, but 'Bones' and 'Father' return to a slightly more animated keyboard-driven sound that almost suggests Hillsong has been taking notes from the likes of M83; if so, it works surprisingly well and doesn't feel contrived, even if there's a sense that the band hasn't quite arrived at the sound they want to achieve.
Despite sagging around the middle with slow-paced, overly-long songs, Aftermath redeems itself in the final stretch with a string of excellent tracks. 'Nova' injects some much-needed energy into the mix before 'Light Will Shine,' the most energetic track on the album that not only features great instrumentation, but also strong lyrics that avoid drawing on the same cliches as past power-rock anthems. 'Search My Heart' tops everything before it and is the only song on the album that seems to integrate all of the band's disparate goals into a single cohesive whole, with all of the instruments balanced perfectly. It builds into a terrific chorus and one of the best bridges the band has ever written to create a truly excellent worship song with beautiful, effective lyrics. The cover of Passion's 'Awakening' closes the album on a slower note, but a bonus track radio version of 'Search My Heart' cuts the song in half and complements rather than detracts from the original.
Aftermath undoubtedly feels like a weaker release than Hillsong's past few albums, but to call it a disappointment would be too harsh. Rather than the product of a band running out of ideas, Aftermath is better viewed as the growing pains of a band trying to break out of the box and pursue new ways to look at Christian worship. Despite being weighed down by ponderous, slow songs that have hurt past Hillsong records as well, there are enough standout tracks to make it well worth the listen for new and old fans alike, and the group's growth as lyricists is noticeable as well, all the more commendable in the context of worship music that tends to rely too heavily on stock phrases and ideas. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself skipping tracks to get to the good parts.