Prime Cuts: Believe, Greatness of Our God, Incense/Sometimes By Step

Hillsong rose to fame because it’s worship music with a difference. Headed initially by former worship pastor Darlene Zschech, Hillsong music carved a niche for female worship leaders in a genre often overcrowded by a trough of anonymous-sounding male singers. And for 19 albums (released perennially during July), the Hillsong team has always resisted the urge to tackle cover music with the bulk of their canon coming from their own core team. However, ever since 2008’s “This is Our God,” Darlene Zschech has receded to the background. Her own compositions have become fewer and she was only featured as lead vocalist on a couple of songs. Taking over in burgeoning capacity is Hillsong senior pastor’s son Joel Houston and the Hillsong United Team. In many ways, the rugged often rock based male led lead vocals have pilfered the team of their uniqueness that once set them apart. Like many other worship projects out there–it’s again male based with heavy pop rock as their sonic template. 2010’s “A Beautiful Exchange” continues on the same deprecating spiral with a couple of redeeming points: Darlene Zschech (for the first time since 2007’s “Mighty to Save”) is back on the CD cover and they have restricted the pool of lead singers to make the whole project more cohesive.

Naturally, the best songs are those led by Darlene Zschech. Unlike the other vocalists, Zschech shows a mastery of capturing the texture of the song’s lyrics. A classic example being the gorgeous worship ballad “Greatness of Our God:” starting off softly showing her vulnerability she confesses her anxieties before God. As she abandons her smallness before God’s grandeur and sovereignty, the song climaxes to an anthemic chorus with Zschech showcasing some of her most soaring moments in worship. Prepare for some faith-building moments with “Believe” (sadly the only co-composition by Zschech with Rueben Morgan) as this reflective ballad is the perfect example of what a worship song ought to be like–God-exalting lyrics set within the context of our everyday experiences. Christ’s atoning work is celebrated in Ben Fielding led “The One Who Saves.” Though Zschech sings only the harmony vocals, the song has a more heartfelt quality because of her vocals.

Of the non-Zschech involved songs, the standout is Brooke Ligertwood’s “Incense/Sometimes By Step.” Tagging on newly crafted verses to Rich Mullins’ worship favourite “Step By Step,” Ligertwood has strung together words from the Psalms that demonstrates a love to follow God’s Word. Ligertwood’s rendition is rife with Godly-passion and it truly is a high point in the worship experience. Matt Crocker’s delivery of the self-penned “Love Like Fire” though a little pedantic in its lyrical content is firey in its execution. While the title cut “A Beautiful Exchange” is an over ten-minute ethereal worship piece that’s a little over-indulgent. Lead single “Forever Reign” bears all the stamp of a future worship staple. With its infectious melody, thumping rhythm, and its thundery anthemic feel, these are all litanies that would make this a future Hillsong favourite. Nevertheless, the crowning moment of “Forever Reign” is the tag line in the chorus “I’m running to your arms”–a cry that gives expression of the heart for God.

Frankly, the nadir of the album is the duo of Joel Houston-led songs. His gravel-like vocals often lacks clarity– try figuring out the words to “Our God is Love” without the lyric sheet. Lacking in originality and freshness, both “You” and “Our God is Love” are sonic chameleons in the world of Tomlins, Auges and Newsboys. Even Rueben Morgan’s “Thank You” and “Open My Eyes” fail to live up the lofty standard he’s capable of. Bring Darlene Zschech back more to the microphone and let Brooke Ligertwood’s pen flow more freely, these are the two ladies that have and will set Hillsong Music apart. And rightly so, they are a unique church group and they deserve to be.

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