Review Summary: Like it or not, Zion wasn't a fluke...Hillsong UNITED
has just released a new album.
That sentence alone conjures various reactions, ranging from groaning to scoffing to cheering. Whatever the reaction, a new album from the Aussies is a momentous occassion in worship music. The Hillsong group of bands is arguably the best known and most sung of the major worship artists. Until 2013, most music critics did not want anything to do with any of the Hillsong bands, however, as they typically released what seemed like the same album over and over again.
Then came Zion
The release of Zion
changed everything. A formerly complacent band radically challenged the format of the genre which they arguably defined and made for the first time in their career true art. This made it impossible for most critics to at least like Zion
. It appealed to the hipster crowd musically while still retaining Hillsong's hallmark songwriting.
, UNITED's second studio album since transitioning into an indie-ish band. This deepens the separation between the current band and their past material by increasing the amount of electronic elements. It could have made the music sound impersonal and distant; thankfully, that is not the case for two reasons. First, UNITED knows how to keep real instruments present in key moments. "Prince of Peace" opens with a (highly produced) acoustic guitar, and "Here Now (Madness)" includes the same kind of sound in the chorus. Many other songs have small but prominent amounts of clean electric guitars and pianos that keep the sound grounded in reality. Second, the band uses very organic and lush synths, with even the lead lines feeling full-bodied and pretty warm. This is in stark contrast to bands like CHVRCHES and a lot of EDM artists that use very harsh, cutting sounds to make their music stand out.
The songs on Empires
are generally pretty mellow. I don't mind this in the least, as they make up for the subtle nature of the songs with great intricacy and detail in the music. What is surprising is the placement of the one true fast song, "Rule," as the tenth track of twelve. I like this a lot because it allows the album to grow and build up to it while also making sure that it doesn't lose all its steam at the end. The flow of the album reminds me a lot of Coldplay
's Ghost Stories
from last year because it saves the loudest moments for the end. The song-to-song transitions are very smooth, and the album as a whole never feels monotonous because of the balance and alternation between mid- and slow-tempoed songs.
Lyrically, this is the best any Hillsong band has ever done. Empires
features many incredibly poetic pieces from beginning to end. One of the best examples of this is "Captain": "Lost in the shadows amidst fear and fog/Your truth is the compass that points me back north." If UNITED was going for an "Oceans" sequel, they did it perfectly, focusing on the same analogy and the same themes while keeping it fresh. Other standout lyrics from Empires
are found in pretty much every track. I have a lot of trouble picking out my favorites because they are all just that good.
is my favorite Hillsong UNITED album to date. Whether you think that or not will depend on your perception of Zion
and whether or not you think this kind of experimentation is a good thing. My favorite part of Empires
is that its focus on intricacy and detail doesn't overshadow the piece art that is being presented as a whole. Its coherency and further lyrical prowess make it an ever-so-slight improvement over Zion
in my book.