Well, it’s about time. It’s been a while since Hillsong United has put out a record that I've enjoyed from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong – Hillsong United does a great job of writing music for the Church, but somewhere during the last decade I feel like they lost touch with the rapidly changing music scene. Kudos to them for sticking to their original sound, but if a group is hoping to make a career out of writing and recording music, they need to consider the latest music trends. Zion did exactly that.
Every time Hillsong announced a new project, I found myself dismissing it fairly quickly. It started sometime after the release of I Heart Revolution: With Hearts as One. Something about Zion caught my attention, though. I think it started with a series of pictures posted on Instagram by Michael Guy Chislett, a guitarist, producer, and entrepreneur in general that I respect and admire greatly. One picture specifically caught my attention. It featured Simon Kobler and Benjamin Tennikoff in a New York City studio surrounded by synthesizers. That’s not typical for Hillsong United; even in the studio albums. When I saw that picture and realized Michael Guy Chislett was producing the next project, I knew it was going to be good.
On the morning of February 26, 2013, I got into my car and opened the Spotify application on my phone. I searched, “Hillsong United” and there it was. For the next seventy plus minutes I listened. I was impressed. It’s been a few months since then and I’m still listening to Zion and I’m still impressed. Four songs stand out and are probably my favorites: “Scandal of Grace”, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, “Love is War”, and “A Million Suns”. As a songwriter, I pay close attention to a song's lyrics. My favorite on Zion comes from "Love is War", "You came and died but the grave was borrowed." It's a simple idea presented uniquely. I love that because it makes you think.
Despite what I think about the record, I’ve overhead more than one conversation between dissatisfied Hillsong United fans, in which several negative points of review were made. Although I enjoy the record, there are two that I acknowledge, the first being the record’s length. I agree. It’s long. Of the thirteen tracks on the album (the deluxe edition has eighteen) only two are below the four minute mark, of which one is a musical interlude. The longest track, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” lasts just a few seconds shy of nine minutes. The lack of “congregation friendly” songs is another weakness of the album that I’ll yield to. This one’s big. Hillsong in general, not only Hillsong United is a major source for songs used in collective singing. Zion features maybe three – “Scandal of Grace”, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, and "King of Heaven". The majority of the others are primarily arranged as performance pieces.
Last night the Hillsong United gang brought the Welcome Zion tour to Chicago and I had the chance to attend. Both of these vices showed. I loved the theme of the tour. When an individual worships, he or she is welcoming the kingdom of God or Zion. However, I felt like I never reached that point where one gets lost in God's presence as I have in past worship experiences. There was no smooth transition between the songs either, as many of the arrangements on Zion are performance oriented. It was probably for this reason that several songs from prior projects were played. The event also felt a bit long. By the end of the night I was exhausted. Maybe I felt that way because it took a while for the event to begin? Or maybe it was because I hadn't had much sleep the night before? Nevertheless, from a strictly musical perspective, it was a good evening. I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Kobler's drumming. The electronic, synthesized arrangement of "Hosanna" was excellent as well. From an evangelistic perspective, I'm glad the message of love and grace was so clearly presented. The opportunity to accept Christ was also a great feature.
Bottom line: While the tour could have been executed better, I am very pleased with Zion. Well done, Hillsong United. Well done.