Hillsong United - that name can conjure various responses: happiness, excitement, celebration, frustration, jealousy, annoyance, etc. The joyful responses make sense; good music receives a well-deserved warm welcome. But why any negative response? It could be for a number of reasons: too many albums that sound the same, the fact that Hillsong related entities flood the CCM market year after year, their ever-growing influence overshadowing lesser known worship artists. Whatever the reason, people either love this band/ministry/movement or they disdain it with every fiber of their being. That being said, the latest offering from the band, Empires, might continue to walk the love/hate line for some people, but without a doubt, some opponents may cross the great divide.
The album opens with the thought provoking, "Here Now (Madness)." With pulsing synth and soft vocals, it's a gentle opening that calls for the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of the church to see His work. This soft introduction is carried throughout most of the album. While United has been known as a band that murders the "thump-thump-thump" of the kick-drum, Empires has a minimalistic sound that relies on rich melodies and meticulous instrumentation. "Say the Word," "Heart Like Heaven," the title track "Empires," and "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)" continue this sound with a heavier emphasis on synths. Special note should be made for "Even When It Hurts;" it is lyrically rich and removes the stigma that God is only in the midst of "good" things, as worship leader Taya Smith sings, "Even when it hurts like hell, I'll praise you. Even when it makes no sense to sing, louder then I'll sing your praise."
Featuring a more acoustic sound are songs like "When I Lost My Heart to You (Hallelujah)," "Prince of Peace," and "Captain." These tracks showcase a more intimate sound that churches can sing with a skeleton crew rather than needing layers upon layers of instruments. In addition, these songs almost serve as refreshing poetic selah moments.
For those looking for corporate gathering songs, you'll find plenty to choose from. "Touch the Sky," the first single from the album, has proven to be the "Oceans" of this release. Smith's vocals shine bright amidst the flowing music. Plus, the song is easy to sing and lyrically is a great reminder of our need for humility in approaching the Lord while at the same time resting in His grace. "Street Called Mercy" may seem like an unconventional choice for a church to sing, but the breath-taking melody, featuring the talents Jonathon Douglass (JD) and Matt Crocker, and simple lyrics make it a heartfelt song for the body of Christ to sing. A true highlight is the one true energetic track, "Rule," once again featuring the vocals of Matt Crocker. The music maintains a simple sound, but the groove pulses with passion as Crocker sings, "Be the fire burning inside out, be the love casting out all fear, let your name rule the atmosphere." Lyrically, it truly resonates the theme of Christ being the king.
Concluding the album is the beautiful "Closer Than You Know." Uniquely, it is from the perspective of Christ to the sinner, reminding the listener that He is closer than we know. Near the end, it transfers to the believer responding to the presence of Christ and finding confidence in who He is and recognizing our natural need to worship Him. The track ends on an incredible crescendo of praise that doesn't leave the album lacking.
Hillsong United has proven over and over again that their music isn't just for corporate gatherings or for easy listening. It is most definitely music for the body of Christ with a sound that resonates with the 21st century believer. The goal isn't to make money, get popular, or to build their empire; it's to sing songs that build-up the future residents of the Kingdom of Heaven. Honestly, those who dislike the band may maintain their position based on private principles - which can be respected, not fully understood but respected. For the rest of us, this is most likely the album that 2015 has been waiting for.- Review date: 5/23/15, written by Ryan Barbee of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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