Sounds like … typical Hillsong Live Worship, blending occasional modern rock with sweeping power balladsAt a glance … there are some powerful and effective songs of worship on Hope, but the generous two-disc set gets bogged down by a long string of similar-sounding ballads
Hillsong's Live Worship albums are generally the most popular of all the recordings they release every year. Hope is the result of Hillsong Church's annual live recording event, held this year at the Convention Centre in Sydney, Australia before a crowd of 11,000. The overall sound falls between the grandiose pop/rock of their previous recording, Blessed (2002), and Hillsong's typical contemporary worship sound, heard on albums like You Are My World (2001) and By Your Side (2000).
Hope begins strongly with two energetic openers. "Better Than Life," by worship leader Marty Sampson, is especially catchy, sounding like classic Sonicflood with hints of ska. A personalized modern rock take on Psalm 63:3, it's as good as recent Hillsong youth worship offerings like "Now That You're Near" and "Every Day." It's followed by worship leader Reuben Morgan's "Glory," a rhythmic song with a terrific melody reminiscent of Matt Redman's "Let Everything That Has Breath," with text inspired by Isaiah 6:1.
Like typical Hillsong worship albums, Hope offers a more than generous share of soaring power ballads. But after opening with two upbeat tracks, things bog down with five consecutive slow songs—half of the first disc. Ray Badham's "Ever Living God" starts off promisingly, but it ultimately plods along without offering much insight or originality in sound. Both Darlene Zschech's "My Hope" and Morgan's "Need You Here" are fine power ballads, but they sound very much like worshipful ballads heard on the last few Hillsong Live Worship discs. Morgan's "Still" and Sampson's "Angels" take on an appropriately gentler and more intimate quality as the album progresses further.
It's not until the soulful Latin funk of "Can't Stop Praising" that Hope finally gets a second injection of energy, sounding like a worshipful Earth, Wind, and Fire. But from there, the praise team offers three more ballads, saturating the disc with similar-sounding slow songs. One, Tim Hughes' "Here I Am to Worship," is a rare example of Hillsong relying on a well-known cover song, but did they have to pick the most over-recorded worship song of the last couple years? There's no denying the song's power, and the worship team does it justice without really straying from a formulaic performance—save for a segue into "Call," a brief worship chorus by Zschech. The first disc ends gloriously with "Highest," using familiar source text from Psalm 36 with a rhythm reminiscent of Redman's "Better Is One Day." The extensive closing vamp is impressive, sounding like the progressive pop/rock of Genesis or Yes.
That's not the end of Hope, however—it seems the Hillsong live worship albums keep getting longer. After the first disc carries on for 11 tracks and 72 minutes, it extends into an additional disc for another 7 tracks and 33 minutes. In some ways, I almost prefer the second CD because it's more concise and well-rounded. The songs are from Hillsong's less-known worship leaders, but they're actually just as good. It opens with the solid melodic rock of Marty Sampson's "Song of Freedom," followed by the somewhat similar "Shout Your Fame." There are two ballads nearly as good as Zschech's work, Miriam Webster's "Exceeding Joy" and Tanya Riches' "King of Love." The album finishes with two tracks from Hillsong's youth worship band, United: Joel Houston's "To the Ends of the Earth" and Sampson's "Free."
You definitely get your money's worth with more than 100 minutes of music, and it's generously priced for no more than a typical Hillsong worship album. Still, in the minds of some, less is more. There's much sameness in Hillsong's sound from track-to-track and album-to-album, and if I didn't know better, I'd wonder if the worship writers ever listened to music by other artists. It doesn't seem that Hillsong and their regular listeners are very interested in originality. Their primary focus is glorifying God and re-creating emotions with the same passionate sound for which they're known. Hope isn't as good as Blessed, but at least it's par for Hillsong, offering enough effective moments for fans of their particular worship style to enjoy.