Hillsong United - Live in Miami 90x90Many a critic has complained that nearly every Hillsong United album sounds exactly the same. Does the latest effort manage to break the mold?

Sparrow Records
22 tracks (127:24 minutes)


There’s something to be said for the old familiar dishes. Whether it’s a welcoming bowl of chicken soup, a piping mug of hot chocolate or a hearty helping of Aunt Edna’s award-winning banana pudding, a timely dose of these tried-and-true standbys can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered. Much like their fellow Aussies AC/DC, who were once accused of having made the same album twelve times (a number the good-humored rockers insisted was actually thirteen), the members of Sydney’s Hillsong United hit on a winning formula early on in their career and have pretty much stuck with it over the course of their decade and a half together, providing fans with what some might call a sort of audio-based comfort food.

With only two of their previous eleven efforts being studio-based creations, it should come as little surprise, particularly to dyed-in-the-wool devotees, that the HU cooperative’s latest installment is an in-concert release. Recorded at the American Airlines Arena in August of last year, Live in Miami serves up a generous double-disc selection of the group’s now-familiar arena-ready anthems and ballads. In the former category, the opening cut “Go” and its U2-inspired follow-on “Break Free” kick things off in distinctly bracing form. “Nova,” “Freedom Is Here/Shout Unto God” and “Like An Avalanche,” as one could probably suss out from their titles, are likewise stimulating. Unfortunately, what these entries possess in spirit and vigor, they simultaneously lack in hook and melody. Indeed, most listeners will arguably be hard pressed to hum any of these non-ballad numbers once they’ve stopped playing.

That said, as they’ve done on more than one occasion in the past, the members of the United collective truly come into their own on the slower compositions. The intimate audience sing-along“All I Need Is You” sets a beautifully meditative and worshipful tone. The gently loping melody and pleasantly laid back vibe of “Rhythms of Grace” help its extended length feel natural rather than gratuitous – an all-too-frequent drawback on the more lively tracks. The elegant and sublime “The Stand” builds masterfully from a hushed introduction to its stirring conclusion. And the semi-ambient acoustically-based “Bones” blends the most attractive elements of emo, sixties folk and modern worship into a transcendent whole that stands shoulder to shoulder with the band’s most heartfelt and poignant works.

For those who actually saw the group on tour last year, the live record, at the very least, serves as a nice souvenir of their attendance. And the faster cuts tendency toward the generic is probably less of a factor in the local civic center or coliseum setting than it is on the listener’s car stereo or digital music player. That said, divorced from the concert venue itself, the preponderance of like-sounding material is only brought into that much sharper focus. Similarly, all but three songs from the group’s most recent studio endeavor, 2011’s Aftermath, appear on Miami, which arguably renders at least one of the two projects unnecessary. This superfluousness is further compounded by the inclusion of “Take It All” and “From the Inside Out,” which pale in comparison to their superior counterparts from previous Hillsong United outings.

Despite their unquestionable propensity for the generic, it’s hard to discount what the United posse has achieved during its years as a unit. Their last three releases each topped the Billboard Christian chart. Aftermath and 2009’s Across the Earth were among the top five most downloaded albums on iTunes during their respective timeframes, and Aftermath made it all the way to Number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Objectively speaking, Miami certainly possesses the raw elements to make it a winner. To be sure, a single-disc effort, with about half of the faster tracks removed (or at the very least trimmed down, timewise) would have made for a considerably more engaging affair. Of course, longtime fans know exactly what they’re getting when they buy a Hillsong United record and likely won’t mind that the new one sounds, for the most part, just like those that have come before it. In the same way, first-time buyers will find it as good a starting point as any for their investigation of the group. For everyone else, though, the album seems destined to fall unnoticed into the proverbial ocean of the band’s existing, and all-too-uniform, body of work.

Bert Gangl