|Songs for the Kingdom | Posted February 26, 2013
Over the past decade and a half, Hillsong has held steady as one of the most monumental names in contemporary worship. Whether released under the Hillsong Live or the Hillsong United branding, the music coming from Australia's Hillsong Church and its global satellites continues to make an incalculable impact in the worldwide Church. The latest ripple of that impact is Hillsong United's Zion, a richly textured release that manages to achieve an intimate, organic feel despite the band's massive international reach.
From the opening swell of the first track "Relentless," it's apparent that this is the collective's most heavily electronic album to date. In moments on tracks like "Nothing Like Your Love" and "Up In Arms," the carefully crafted instrumentation is almost reminiscent of the stronger elements of 80s synth rock. Musically, each song carries a strong sense of focus, which helps even the longer tracks like "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" and "Love Is War" drive deep throughout their duration.
Some of the songs still capture the massive arena feeling Hillsong has cultivated in the past, such as in the beautifully written "Love is War," which soars musically as it outlines the victory of Christ's love over both physical and spiritual death.
In addition to the dynamic and varied sonic techniques, this album brings some incredible lyrics to the table, established firmly in a sound reliance on scripture. At a time when it's all too easy to create catchy yet theologically shallow music for the church, Hillsong United instead dives deep while still creating a presentation accessible to Christ-followers at any point in their faith. "Scandal of Grace" explores the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural concept of grace, approaching the subject from a sense of overwhelmed awe. The vivid "A Million Suns" uses celestial imagery of sun and stars to capture God's eternal nature. "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" comes as a vulnerable prayer echoing an episode in the life of Christ's apostle Peter, asking God to take us into the deep waters where faith alone can sustain us: "You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown where feet may fail. And there I find You in the mystery, in oceans deep my faith will stand."
In each song, musical beauty is married to functionality, as in the rhythmic "Heartbeat" where the steady but subtle beat serves to reinforce the theme of a heart that "beats forever just to know You." Possibly the most instrumentally varied selection, "Tapestry," employs a variety of sounds as it weaves together many themes from the album in one song for God's people: "our lives a tapestry of grace Your hand has weaved together." The dedicated declarations of "Stay and Wait" are supported by the steadying swell of richer vocal tones. Some of the tracks strip away the electronic elements and rely on a traditional piano sound that tugs at memories of old hymns, such as in the reverent closing cut "King Of Heaven."
The deluxe version of the album offers two new tracks plus three re-imagined versions of songs found on the standard release. "Arise" is a beautiful selection leaning musically on a raw acoustic guitar tone as it calls to the world to "arise, for the kingdom has come." "Mountain" focuses on the concept of Christ as cornerstone, capturing the scriptural concept of Matthew 21:42 with the phrase "the stone the builders rejected, laid to ransom a fractured bride." Each of the re-imagined tracks ("Mercy Mercy," "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," and "Stay and Wait") provides an intriguing and more heavily electronic mixed alternative to the standard releases.
Although this album carries strong traces of the indie and electronic vibes widespread in the current music scene, it by no means loses musical excellence or spiritual intensity. Rather than a contrived attempt at relevance, Zion crafts a soundtrack for God's people that is in every note and word intentional and Heaven-bent. These songs should easily satisfy and encourage longtime Hillsong followers, and they also have the potential to draw in a new audience from segments of Christians who often struggle to connect with worship music. This album is certain to take its place as an important moment in the contemporary Church's conversations with God.
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