For years, the Hillsong UNITED collective has been in a state of movement, evolving from an arena-worship favorite to something more refined and defined in their approach. 2013’s Zion was a good look into the band’s maturing direction but with their latest, Empires, Hillsong UNITED delivers what is perhaps their best album to date, combining their signature lyricism alongside a vibrant, honest musical backdrop.
It’s refreshing to see the band moving in a renewed direction, stepping out from the formulaic worship formula to deliver something that feels more earnest and authentic. Gone are the big, blasting guitars and heavy drums and instead listeners are treated with generally introspective soundscapes colored with warm piano, smooth strings, and soulful yet almost whispered vocals at times. It’s a far cry from the days of the band’s “rah rah” Christian cheering tracks like “Take It All” and lands as a welcome sound on listener’s ears.
One of the keys to the record comes in the overall production. Eschewing the usual CCM formula of mixing the vocals very hot in the mix, Hillsong UNITED instead opts for a more contemporary mix, allowing the music to shine as brightly as the vocals and it’s quite the achievement, putting the two on equal ground and truly resulting in something that feels creatively sublime. And with arrangements that feel almost stripped down and distilled to their essence, the effect is even more powerful.
It’s that simplicity that makes this record truly shine. Here the band seems at their most comfortable in a long time and that level of comfort is on full display from the opening track, “Here Now (Madness).” Slightly discordant keyboard swells anchored by lots of wide open space carry forth lyrics like “When justice called for all my debt/The Friend of sinners came instead” while “Say the Word” maintains a similar sense of space while still delivering a track infused with bright energy and hope. “Heart Like Heaven” is a step back to classic Hillsong vibes, the soulful, congregation-friendly arrangement bound to rock many an arena before giving way to the more subtle and understated lead single, “Touch the Sky.”
“Street Called Mercy” is one of the tracks that very much puts the music on par with the vocals, the vocals almost hushed and sang with a warm reverence as “When I Lost My Heart to You (Hallelujah)” ripples with more wide open musical spaces, passionate vocals, and an intimate lyric. That intimacy and passion gives way to bold and unashamed praise on “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song),” the lyric acknowledging the pain of life while continuing to see God in the suffering while “Prince of Peace” shines as one of the album’s brightest spots, the choral progression tailor made for corporate worship with its killer hook.
A similar case can be made for the title track, the whole package delivering the goods and begging listeners to keep pressing repeat while “Rule” steps in with some bold electronic-flavored energy, the dance-worthy beats providing a dose of bold excitement. Simplicity again reigns with “Captain,” as warm keyboards rule the day and underscore a plaintive vocal delivery before things come to a powerful conclusion on “Closer Than You Know.” The slow building track begins soft and subtle and continues that way for some time before the collective unleashes, the vocals soaring with passion and praise and then subsiding, allowing for a period of reflection before closing out on a powerfully strong note.
Hillsong UNITED’s Empires is easily the best album of their history, combining the best of the past with a refined sense of maturity in their music, resulting in a comfortable yet creative explosion of sound and supplication.