A couple of interesting things happened before Torres took the stage at the Echo last night: first, during set up and tuning, she lit some type of incense and spread the smoke around the stage. My roommate had done a similar thing earlier in the day with sage in our apartment. I asked him if he did this for a reason. “Of course, man,” he said. “You gotta keep the evil spirits away.”
The second thing took place right before the first song of their set. To set the mood, a track of hollow drum strikes was played on a loop, filling the room. Just thock. thock. thock. in sets of 9 before the first band member stepped onto the stage. If you’ve ever see a Japanese taiko performance, it had that kind of drama. Eventually, Mackenzie Scott, better known as Torres, took the stage in a long black coat with an up-turned collar.
What these two things told me was that Torres was not just another guitar band. There is something dramatic and wicked to their music, a sense of black magic, that makes her performance thrilling. On the single “Strange Hellos,” Scott reaches briefly into death metal-esque screeching when the chorus reaches its highest climaxes. It had all the epic atmosphere of a band like Deafheaven but with the intimacy and vulnerability of a singer-songwriter like Sharon Van Etten. That’s an incredible thing to balance.
Torres in-person is really something to behold. Most bands you want to see for the entertainment value, because it goes well with a couple of friends a draft of beer. Torres is bigger than that. It’s weight of the world and the human condition stuff, it’s the descent of a black-winged angel. This is the mood in the room when she slips into “Son, You Are No Island,” a hypnotic and tormented damnation of an unfortunate soul. When you hear it on Sprinter, it’s an odd interlude, but on stage it’s a bit like watching someone cast a spell. If Mackenzie Scott is working some black magic, it’s to exorcise interior darkness.
Between songs, Scott was endearing and shy. She spoke plainly of her nervousness and discomfort. “I don’t know how to have conversations,” she said, twice, unprompted. But once the music started, it was like she fell back into possession. All of this is to say that it was a night of heavy music. The closest thing we had to levity was “Cowboy Guilt,” with its unconventional rhythm and melodies. It’s not something you can really dance to, but it had enough breathing room that the people started to sway.
Still, it was strangely short. With no encore planned, evident from set lists left after the show, the night came to an end around 8 songs. Crowd pleasers like “When Winter’s Over” were nowhere to be seen, and I have to believe album ender “The Exchange” would have been a gorgeous cap for the night. Still, we landed on “November Baby,” which somehow came out more introspective than ever. You forget that the song is 7 minutes long because it takes you in like meditation. Watching Scott perform it, you get the sense that it’s just as important for her to play it as it is for us to hear it. That’s true for a lot of artists, especially the more emotive types. But with Torres, it’s the only way to read the show.
“Your big sad eyes, your crooked smile. Your gap teeth, your widow’s peak. Oh, my November baby” she sang. Suddenly you’re thinking of everyone you’ve ever loved.
That’s power and intimacy at work. These are gutteral songs from deep. It’s like a volcano in all its forms; if she wasn’t lava bubbling in potential fire, she was erupting and destructive. I know I’m not using a lot of beautiful metaphors — fiery disasters, angels of death, dark magic — but beauty was present in the humanity and grandeur of the music. It was there all night.