After announcing the release of Empires to the world via Rocket Ship, it’s fair to say that Hillsong UNITED has had its fans waiting on their toes for the impending release of the group’s latest studio album, dropping May 26. Well, we have some good news. FDRMX has had the chance to hear Empires early and we’ve got a shiny, new review to go with it. So guys, get back to designing those scripture-based tattoos so you can be like Joel Houston, and girls, rock the skateboard like Taya Smith, because Empires is something special and you should be stoked.
Opening with “Here Now (Madness),” Empires starts in a blaze of synth-based glory. This and the use of keyboards makes you feel as though you are launching into space, and the band immediately achieves its goal of transcending the gap between the spiritual and natural realm. As the instrumentals pull back, the male vocals take prominence and the prayer, “Still my heart, let your voice be all I hear now. Fix my eyes on the things that I can’t see now,” becomes the focal point of the song. Going for a little over 7 minutes, one could assume you would get bored with this song and its repetition, but quite honestly you don’t. The music and vocals continue to rise, and the ethereal quality of the song carries you away. While this is an unusual choice for an opening track due to its ballad like nature, it works perfectly and it leaves you hungry for more.
“Say The Word” lifts the tempo, and percussion mixes with UNITED’s iconic guitar riffs to bring color to the album. Smith’s vocals are light and beautiful and they seem to carry a life of their own, dwelling above the intensity of the electro based melody. Listening to this, I was immediately taken by the content of the lyrics. The depth of theology and Biblical awareness in them is phenomenal as they sing, “Over the words of stone you spilt your blood, for when you say ‘it is done,’ it is done,” yet they still tell the story of grace and redemption with an artistry often missing in the secular and CCM worlds.
Following on with “Heart Like Heaven,” the quirky electro beats keep coming before stopping abruptly for the vocals. There is an intentionality behind every element of this song and this is apparent in their musical, vocal, lyrical and production choices. More so than the previous tracks, this song becomes a worship anthem, and you can envision the heavens singing the chorus of “Holy is you name,” with the celestial sounds of the keyboard lifting the song. The lead single, “Touch the Sky” follows, and the catchy melody gives way for Smith’s vocals to soar. A quintessential display of whatEmpires represents, this track seems to encapsulate the spiritual and musical elements of a band known for their love of Christ and others.
“Street Called Mercy” opens with a cool guitar rift and the perfect melding of the male and female vocals to illustrate a story of adoption and being found. At times rich in instrumentation, and in other moments nearly completely free of any sound except for the vocals, there is an expertise and courage shown in the band’s musical choices as they give us a fresh take on what it means to belong to God. “When I Lost My Heart To You (Hallelujah)” follows, and is reminiscent of UNITED’s earlier work. The acoustic backing with simple piano chords and the intense vocals are a salute to the band’s roots. Sliding into false etto gently, the song carries a meekness and delicacy that is refined by the masculinity of the vocal tones. Flawlessly beautiful as they seem to dwell in the repetition of “Hallelujah, I found your love when I lost my heart to you,” you are ushered into an intimate moment that feels nearly too sacred to enter. The quality of the lead singers’ delivery is high throughout the album, and aside from Taya Smith and Joel Houston, Jad Gillies, Jonathan “J.D” Douglass and Matt Crocker also step up to the plate and deliver melodies that set this album up as one of their best to date.
A charismatic percussion section underlies “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song),” and they dive into synth infused tones of the chorus before stepping back to the melodic back beat that communicates a steadiness to match the song’s message. Rather than being a surface level religious album in its themes, this song communicates the personal struggles we all face. Cleverly, the instrumentation lifts when the lyrics speak of focusing on God despite these circumstances.
“Prince of Peace” is a poetic masterpiece that reminds me of a sequence in a C.S. Lewis novel. Growing up in the church, the title ‘Prince of Peace’ is something I have heard used a million times to describe Jesus, but this song revitalized it for me. A simple acoustic backing leaves room for the other-worldliness of the lyrics that personalize a trait so often out of reach in a world full of chaos. The instrumental builds immensely through the bridge, until we are given a full blown victory sequence that somehow fills you with strength and peace, even just by listening to it.
The title track “Empires” was made for corporate worship, but it’s not your average church song. Filled with a driving electric guitar, strings and lead vocals that take your hand and pull you into the other-worldliness of the song, the chorus is simple in melody and lyrics, yet profound in truth. I’ve heard many worship songs, and few give me chills. This one did, because it isn’t an attempt to look good, or sound fantastic for the sake of appearing ‘holy.’ There is an authenticity to this song that will make you fall in love with it, and mixed with the top notch standard of UNITED, this makes it a beautiful and bold step in the area of corporate worship that I hope many more churches will take.
“Rule” is the first appearance of a dance-worthy track, and electro beats and synth combine with the vocals to get you up and celebrating. An exciting take on Jesus’ victory and resurrection, this tune makes a well-known story relevant again, and it engages the listener in the present reality of the redemption story. “Captain” is a captivating song reminiscent of a hymn. The vocal range required to sing it is a tough ask, but Smith is eloquent and gentle in her delivery. A visual song, it captures the essence of Christ as the captain of our lives. In what could be a terrible and corny take on an over-used metaphor, UNITED deliver it masterfully and to poke holes in the imagery would be to miss an exquisite piece of work.
Finishing with “Closer Than You Know,” a quiet, mellow tone overwhelms a song that places the listener in the shoes of Christ as he walked to his death. This is such an uncompromising and bold song. People may turn their head to it because it is so visual and transcends the frivolity of religion to make faith about a deeply personal experience. I tip my hat to UNITED for this song though. It is rare to hear a song that encapsulates my own faith journey, and the fact they have been able to do this for me tells me this will likely be an experience for many others too.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Empires, but before dismissing this as “just another church album,” I implore you to listen to it. Hillsong UNITED have done an extraordinary job in putting together and delivering an album that is both authentic and of the highest quality. Deeply personal but able to be sung to by the masses; and reaching past the stratosphere of the natural and pulling us into the world of the supernatural, this is one of the best church albums I have heard in a long, long while. To put it simply, I have to say thank you UNITED. Thank you for giving us Empires.