Review Summary: The most overrated album in worship music history? It's more likely than you think.
Hillsong United practically reinvented worship music in the mid-2000s, redeeming it from the bland repetitiveness of Chris Tomlin and his ilk in favor of a more musically aggressive style that went far beyond other early 2000s artists. Despite being the product of a megachurch, Hillsong United felt "indie" and had the credibility to draw a hipper audience than most other worship artists.
But by 2013, things had changed. None of their following albums could live up to the incredible standard they'd set on their outstanding albums Look To You, United We Stand, and All Of The Above. They were being quickly eclipsed by Jesus Culture and Bethel Music - themselves virtually the American equivalent of Hillsong - and they seemed on the verge of irrelevance. Worship was increasingly moving away from fist-pumping power anthems, as church musicians began following the trend of big beards, banjos, and acoustic guitars. In the meantime, holdouts to arena worship seemed more passionate than United - particularly Jesus Culture, with their near-psychotic levels of passion and enthusiasm.
Zion is, for better or worse, an album that completely redefined the band. It ditches all traces of the thrashy post-punk guitar riffing of their best upbeat songs and replaces it for a synth-heavy sound that seems to have absorbed a panoply of Pitchfork-acclaimed chillwave bands. This is a novel approach that builds on Aftermath's stylistic changes. The problem isn't that this is a bad idea: it's actually a really good one. It's just that Zion's songwriting is not very interesting.
Zion has one outstanding song (Oceans) and one above-average song (Relentless). The rest are a hazy, hushed collection of tunes that certainly aren't bad, but simply lack anything particularly memorable about them. The writing distances itself from Hillsong's trademark catchy style, which has certainly been criticized in the past; but this reviewer, for one, has never found that catchiness to be a bad thing at all. Despite the fact that the album received glowing reviews, I've never heard a single one of its tracks besides Oceans played in church worship.
Fortunately, the new singles from United's upcoming album Empires suggest that the band has considerably refined their approach, taking Zion's good ideas and melding them with some better songwriting as United continues to transform from Bloc Party The Worship Band into a slick, avant-pop group with a fresh approach to worship. If Hillsong does become, once again, at the forefront of modern worship, it will be because of the seeds Zion planted, even if Zion itself isn't a great album.