Hillsong United has gone hipster.
While using the “h word” to describe anything is usually a derogatory dig at its perceived pretentiousness, it’s not so in this case.
Zion takes Hillsong United’s musical sound and style in a very different direction from its conventional stadium-rock-anthem sound of previous years. Punchy rock guitar solos and heavy drums are exchanged for pulsing synth beats and haunting string and percussion sections.
A subtler, more restrained vocal style is also favoured here over United’s traditionally raw, powerhouse, anthemic vocals, giving Zion a more ethereal and meditative feel.
Each of these 13 tracks bears the musical influence of some of the major indie/alternative acts to hit the Australian music scene in the past few years.
Lead track “Relentless” opens the album strongly with catchy synth and percussion, and soaring male vocals akin to that of indie band Imagine Dragons. The quiet power and poetic lyrics in the song “Scandal of Grace” is reminiscent of the distinctive acoustic/synth arrangements found in Matt Corby’s music.
“Zion (Interlude)” and “Heartbeats” channel Temper Trap in their innovative electro-rock riffs and multi-layered musical construction. However, it is the transcendental “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, evoking the pensive, piano-driven sound and echoic vocals of The Civil Wars and Florence and the Machine, that is the real stand-out track on this album.
However, Zion is still distinctly Hillsong in sound and writing. The essential gospel message remains intact throughout, with more thoughtful lyrics, reflecting a worshipful focus on God and what He has done for us. This is a welcome change from the straightforward one-line call-and-response style of previous years.
The upside to this is an album that is enjoyably fresh and interesting, and that resounds with the youth that United are there to serve.
There are downsides, however. The lyrics are occasionally abstract, making the basic gospel message a little unclear amid the metaphors, especially to those who may be unfamiliar with the gospel. The reliance on synth to carry most of the songs can also be somewhat distracting from worship, and makes it harder to adapt these songs to an average congregational setting.
The 30-minute DVD behind-the-scenes documentary channels similar hipster vibes and looks like it’s been filmed through the entire range of Instagram filters. Featuring an interview with United band leader Joel Houston, and a few bonus songs, it rounds out Zion as a nice little extra but is not very substantial.
While not without its flaws, Zion is an album with more character, texture, cohesion, depth and emotional substance than some of its predecessors. Zion also demonstrates United’s ability to continually evolve with youth music culture and make worship relevant to each new generation. Consider this high praise for something so hipster.