Moddi /w Archangel State Chamber Orchestra @ Studenthuset Driv, Tromsø

by Emīls Vilcāns

a3055015158_10Presenting his latest 4th studio album Unsongs, the northern storyteller Moddi, hailing from Senja, Norway, draws us into an insightful trip to 12 countries, giving voice to 12 silenced songs. The Archangel State Chamber Orchestra by his side and a guitar in hand, the troop magnificently builds a musically politic expression upon the stage of Studenthuset Driv, Tromsø on the 10th of November.

Artistic expression and politics have always been the two parallels that affect each other. By looking at the works of artists throughout the ages, let it be writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc., we can learn a lot about their possibilities, social standards, norms, political regimes and the political correctness of their time and place. However, with censorship not being a stranger both back in the day and now, there are thousands of artists all around the world that have been muted, forbidden, imprisoned and some even executed for their artistic expression of the truth about what’s happening around them. Being a political activist himself before becoming a musician, Moddi, in collaboration with photographer Jørgen Nordby,  embarks on a journey for their project Unsongs: Forbidden Stories, following the footsteps of artists around the world who have once before been dealt with that exact fate.  Reaching out to 12 buried songs from countries like Russia, Vietnam, Mexico, Chile, etc., Moddi gifts his touch to each of them – translating, understanding and providing with a new musical arrangement, resulting in the project’s background album – Unsongs.

After a month long touring both in Europe and in Norway, Moddi finally arrives at the Studenthuset Driv, Tromsø, creating one of the longest queues I had ever seen at the establishment. Without too much time spent waiting for the musicians to appear, the lights pop-on and the Archangel State Chamber Orchestra steps onto the stage to take their seats, which is also their first time during Moddi’s tour. And soon after, the man himself takes his place at the front, and, surprisingly for me, not with an accordion but with an acoustic guitar. With the sample of Zhao Ziyang’s spoken words at the Tiananmen Square, China on 19th of May, 1989 the troop ignites into the opener June Fourth 1989: From the Shattered Pieces of a Stone it Begins. Moddi’s string picking and the overall atmosphere shares a close notion to Ben Howard‘s Oats in the Water. Nevertheless, with the first interaction between the musician and his backing string orchestra, the piece expands to huge proportions, not even letting through a thought that this might be his and the orchestra’s first gig together.

Proceeding to the jazzy A Matter Of Habit by Izhar Ashdot, the atmosphere becomes musically lighter with eased guitar strumming and plucked violins. However, this might even be the heaviest track on the album lyric-wise. Being based on testimonies by the soldiers of the Israeli army on occupation and being the oppressor, Izhar’s idea behind the song is to inform people of what happens when their children are sent into the army. Doing that directly and head on. Giving a momentum to catch a breath, Moddi proceeds to his original House by the Sea from Set the House on Fire. That and Krokstav-emne being the only two songs from  his previous albums, the show is entirely dedicated to the Unsongs project about which Moddi is keen on telling about. Sharing the stories of each song before playing, some take longer than one might expect, thus, at a certain point, even losing the sense of being at a concert. Gaining the biggest reaction from the audience to the story about Parrot, Goat and Rooster – a drug ballad by Los Tucanes de Tijuana from Mexico. Contrary to the original that actually hints of it being a drug ballad, Moddi’s instrumentally mellow cover either insists it being an actual fairytale for children or a long and dazed trip.

Right after they proceed to the masterfully crafted cover of Pussy Riot‘s Punk Prayer, melodically based on Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Ave Maria. Contrary to the organ version on the album, Moddi plays this one with his acoustic guitar as well. Not losing one bit of the initial spirit, this song delivers the protest of the Russian activists, so to speak, in a more subtle and peaceful way. Closing in on to the end of the gig, Moddi introduces the audience with his special guest Elle Márjá Eira for the Sami song The Shaman and the Thief. A song that dates back to the far 1820’s, portraying the meeting between a Sami shaman and a Christian priest. Featuring the famous Sami singer Mari Boine on the album, the young Sami singer’s vocal abilities are no less suitable for the role. Their voices pleasantly melting within the conflict, Elle breaks out into a powerful joik that so embodies natures lively wrath. Thanking the audience for attending the show and giving praise to his brilliant backing string orchestra, the troop flows into the last unsong of the evening – Oh My Father I Am Joseph, concluding the evening on a atmospherically warmer note.

After hearing the 14 songs that stretched out somewhat over an hour, I leave the venue with a mixed feeling of musical satisfaction and a thoughtful mind. Musically, the show really was breathtaking. Kudos to the Archangel State Chamber Orchestra that filled in the emotional notions and cinematic feel which Moddi couldn’t of accomplished alone, at least not in such a grand scale. With the verses of Army Dreamers and A Matter of Habit still pondering around my head, I grant Moddi his title of being a musician story-teller. With his added touch to each of the 12 unsongs, the translated messages open up a new audience to stories that were once relevant only to their original backgrounds. And after the process of gaining this knowledge, learning these stories, visiting the places, he manages to pull you in with the same enthusiasm and feeling about what these artists were trying to unveil. Fueled with the utmost sincerity and delivered in that pop-folk’ish delicateness, the show of Unsongs is hands down the most thought provoking project of the year with a spectacular musicianship throughout! The only thing missing – Moddi’s accordion and a live version of Rubbles, but that leaves me looking forward to my next encounter with the man.

Up-coming tour dates:

NOV 26     V I E N N A (AT) Bluebird Festival – tickets
DEC 02     A N K A R A (TU) Nordik Müzik Festivali – tickets
DEC 07     L O N D O N (UK) Hoxton Hall – tickets


JAN 18     I S T A N B U L (TU) Salon IKSV – tickets
JAN 19     I S T A N B U L (TU) Salon IKSV – tickets
FEB 15     K A N S A S (US) Folk Alliance Festival – tickets