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Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

The amount of depravity Francesca Bianchi subjects orris root to, I don’t know to be scared of meeting her in a dark alley – or take her out for an Aperol Spritz. People are just now starting to talk about a Bianchi DNA, but I think that her signature was fairly evident from her first releases. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that Bianchi takes materials that seem innocuous and innocent in and of themselves – light suede, powdery orris, fresh vetiver – and works them over with a knuckleduster until they smell rough around the edges and distinctly unclean.

I wonder if, when Luca Turin said in The Guide 2018 that most of the creativity in perfume these days was coming out of Italy, he meant Italians are not afraid of making a statement? Because that’s true in Francesca Bianchi’s case. She doesn’t shy away from pungency or notes that traverse the scale from matted bear to Siamese kitty. But while I wouldn’t rate Bianchi’s perfumes as particularly beginner-friendly, there’s an (Italianate?) smoothness of finish that renders them beautifully wearable. In fact, I can’t think of any other indie whose work falls into that tight space between animalism and polish as neatly as Francesca Bianchi (although Marlou comes very close).  

Although very different to each other, it’s hard not to see Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight as anything other than two sides of the same coin, joined as they are not only by their twinned launch but by the patented Bianchi move of perverting the aloofness of orris with rude skin musks and the salty, urinous twang of ambergris. Leather is the outcome in one; a diffuse taffeta ruff in the other. But something about both perfumes make me think, ‘Francesca Bianchi, you are a bad, bad girl’.

The Black Knight in particular drives me wild. It took me a bit of time to understand it, but after ten days straight of wearing the damn thing, I’m all in. Opening with a hoary ‘Old Man and the Sea’ vetiver that smells like a bunch of whiskey-sozzled men in damp tweed around an open fire in a cramped little Irish cottage beside the sea, it immediately establishes a tone of neglect and closed-up spaces. Slightly analogous to vintage Vetiver by Annick Goutal and Muschio di Quercia by Abdes Salaam al Attar, the vetiver here is denuded of all freshness and twisted into a grungy leather that smells more like something dug up from the bowels of the earth than grass. But for all its salt-encrusted, boozy ‘staleness’, I think The Black Knight succeeds for much the same reason that Patchouli 24 does, in that it balances out a smoky, barely civilized leather accord with a softening layer of something sweet and balmy, delivering both the sting of the whip and a soothing caress in one go.

The Black Knight swaps out the birch tar of the Le Labo for an interesting cuir accord built mostly (as far as I can tell) from that hulking vetiver and some of the bitter, meaty Cellier-esque, Isobutyl quinoline-infused leather that’s been popping up quite a bit recently (see Rose et Cuir). It takes some time to dry down into that softening layer of balmy beeswax – infinitely more balanced than the sweetness in Patchouli 24, which is more sugary and vanilla extract-like in character – so before we settle in for the final, long drawn-out waltz of leather and cream, there’s a surprising development or two.

Most notably, past the opening of dusty ‘grumpy old man’ vetiver, an animalistic accord emerges, pungent and sticky with honey, and almost honking with the freshly-urinated-upon-hay stink of narcissus. Bianchi’s treatment of orris is fascinating to me – she can make it high-toned and mineralic, or funky with the low-tide halitosis of ambergris or blow it out into a big, civety floral cloud. Here, the orris is briefly pungent, with disturbing hints of rubber, boot polish, tar, and urine. This pissy-rubbery stage almost never fails to surprise me – and I’ve been wearing these two samples for the past ten days straight. Don’t smell your skin too closely and you might miss it entirely.  

The Black Knight seems to go on forever, dawdling in that balmy double act of creamed beeswax and ‘hard’ leather before eventually dropping all the sweetness, leaving only mineralic dust and the faint whiff of marshy runner’s sweat (a drydown it shares with Le Labo Patchouli 24). The Black Knight is a bolshy, mouthing-off-in-all-directions strop of scent that’s probably not the easiest thing for a total beginner to carry off. But it’s striking as hell, and never less than sexy.   

I can never tell if Lost in Heaven is a civety floral or a floral civet. There’s a brocaded sourness of honey, pale ale, and resin in the far drydown that gives it something to rest against. But mostly this is a bunch of dollhead-sweet flowers blown out into a diffuse cloud of satiny musks and underlined with something very, very unclean – like leaning in to kiss and girl and catching a suggestion of unwashed pillowcases, scalp, and skin that’s already been licked.

At first, Lost in Heaven reminds me very much of other vaguely retro indie floral civets (or civety florals), especially Maria Candida Gentile’s irisy Burlesque – a mini of which I bought for myself as a birthday present and am rapidly burning through – and Mardi Gras by Olympic Orchids. Then it strikes me that it’s not only the civet (or technically, the ambergris in the case of Lost in Heaven) that’s linking all these scents in my mind, but a certain indie treatment of the iris, or orris, that they all share. I’ve smelled it in Andy Tauer’s iris-centric work too, most notably in Lonesome Rider and his more recent Les Années 25, and it runs like a hot streak through Francesca Bianchi’s work.

The only way I can describe this specifically indie orris treatment is this: take a huge mineral-crusted rock from the beach, wipe it down quickly with a lemony disinfectant, stick it in a clear glass kiln and turn up the heat to 1370 degrees C until it vaporizes, filling the closed-in space with a glittering miasma of acid, mica, and lime-like tartness. I have a suspicion that a matchstick’s worth of Ambrox or Cetalox is the fuse that ignites the orris here, with castoreum creating that dusty, soot-like dryness that approaching freshly tanned leather or suede. The end result is a rather sour and acid-tinged iris that smells like you’re smelling the material diffused in the air after a lab explosion rather than from anything growing in nature. Actually, to be fair – I’ve smelled this ‘hot lava stone’ treatment of orris in landmark Guerlains too, most notably in Attrape-Coeur (one of my all-time favorite scents), which layers a dollop of peach and raspberry jam over a bed of these hissing-hot iris rocks and watches for the chemical reaction. Fridge-cold jam against hot minerals, with a side of sweet, rubbery dollhead, all blown out into sour, almost boozy mist – well, what’s not to like, really?

God, I only hope I’m making sense to someone out there.  

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

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Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris

15th November 2018

 

In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.

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Francesca Bianchi The Lover’s Tale (2018)

11th October 2018

 

Francesca kindly sent me a preview sample of The Lover’s Tale and as we were chatting about it over email, she mentioned that at Pitti fragrance fair, the perfume proved to be quite divisive; most of the (Russian) men from Fragrantica loved it while she could see that others were clearly struggling with it.

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Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex

11th September 2018

 

Antonio Gardoni’s style is so distinctive that his work can almost be graded in Gardoni-ness, with Noun being a 9/10 (i.e., immediately identifiable as an Antonio Gardoni creation) and Aeon 001 being a 3 or a 4 (identifiable as a Gardoni only if you think hard about it). I’ve never had the chance to smell Gardelia, but from all accounts, its honeyed white floral softness places it slightly outside Gardoni canon, so perhaps a 1 on the Gardoni scale.

 

For those unfamiliar with the Gardoni style, the recurring motifs might be loosely defined as (a) a lean and elegantly bitter mélange of apothecary herbs and spices, tending towards medicinal, (b) a butch, non-traditional treatment of white florals, especially tuberose, and (c) a complex, brocaded drydown that mixes resins with musks, castoreum, ambergris and/or other animalics. More prosaically, I always think of Gardoni’s creations as possessing an authentic ‘golden’ vigor that’s masculine in an old school manner.

 

Zoologist, as a brand, could also be said to have a distinctive house style. Of course, since each perfume has a different creator, it’s more difficult to pin down the specifics beyond the fact that all seem to be built on an exaggerated scale, with one chosen element (woods, smoke, leaves, fruit) blown up until it towers comically over the composition like King Kong. They are all exciting, vivid fragrances, but often quite rough, probably because they aren’t put through the glossing filter that most other niche scents go through to reach market these days. As an example, Hyrax would be a 10 on the Zoologist scale, because its filth-and-dried-urine-inside-burning-tires aroma makes it one of those hardcore ‘I dare you’ scents that only the nichiest of niche-heads would wear, whereas something like Hummingbird is a solid 2: a frothy whirl of fruit and flowers that won’t scare the horses.

 

Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but anyone dithering over a blind purchase of either a sample or a full bottle of Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will want to know how Gardoni it is, and also possibly, how Zoologist it is, on a scale of 1 to 10. My short answer is that Tyrannosaurus Rex is a 4 on the Gardoni scale, and a 8 on the Zoologist scale. In other words, I don’t know that I’d guess it’s a Gardoni creation from smelling it blind (although digging in, there are a few clues), but I’d confidently peg it as a Zoologist release.

 

Tyrannosaurus Rex opens with a furnace blast of burning tree sap and smoke, featuring both the rubbery green soot of cade and the piney sharpness of frankincense. This sounds rather par for the course for anyone who’s ever collected or smelled the most popular scents in the phenolic category, like Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors), or Revolution (Cire Trudon), but Tyrannosaurus Rex immediately distinguishes itself from this company by layering a core of buttery floral notes through the rough-grained miasma of smoke.

 

In particular, a thickly oily champaca stands out, smelling not of the its usual fruity-musky cleanliness but of the almost rancid, stale ‘Irish butter’ gardenia undertones of Indian champaca, the red ‘joy oil’ stuff that gives Strangelove NYC’s lostinflowers its pungency. Picture the greasy saltiness of gardenia, rose, and ylang butters thrown onto a burning fire with some laurel leaves and fir, and you’ll get a sense of the opening here. It smells like something charred to purge the air of impurities and sickness; the smoke element more medicinal than holy. This facet, plus the fact that it smells the way frankincense gum tastes, identifies it as being Gardoni-esque.

 

The sheer brute force of the opening, however, is more Zoologist in style. The marriage of smoke and oily floral takes some getting used to. It smells rich and addictive, but also a little too much of a good thing, like staying too long at the fuel pump to breathe in the gasoline fumes, or walking through a rubber plantation on fire fully aware that you should run before the toxic fumes get you but also weirdly narcotized into a trance-like state.

 

The smoke, in particular, is what pushes this one up on the Zoologist scale. It’s an element I associate with, in particular, Hyrax, a 2018 Zoologist release, which smells like a well-used rubber incontinence sheet set on fire. While Tyrannosaurus Rex is far more accomplished and not provocative for the sake of being provocative, there’s no denying that the shock factor of the opening is high. Unless, unlike me, you’re one of those people who absolutely live for the most challenging parts of a perfume, like the Listerine mouthwash of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’s topnotes or the putrid cherry cough syrup first half of Diptyque’s Kimonanthe, in which case, the ‘burning rubber plantation’ portion of  Tyrannosaurus Rex will be the highlight.

 

For me, though, the latter parts of the scent are the most enjoyable because that’s when everything relaxes and the warning system in my solar plexus stops ringing. This is where things get seriously sensual. Only two components of the drydown are identifiable to me, or at least familiar. First, a minty-camphoraceous balsam note, like a solid cube of Carmex set to melt gently on a hot plate, mixed with the gritty brown sugar crystals of benzoin or some other ambery material. At times, it smells like fir balsam and old leather mixed with vanilla ice-cream (soft and almost creamy), and at others, it is bitter and metallic, thanks to rose oxide, a material that smells like nail polish mixed with mint leaves and rose.

 

The second component in the drydown, for me, is the sandalwood. Although I don’t know whether sandalwood synthetics or natural sandalwood oil was used, the note reminds me very much of Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood), a santalum album from India that’s sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than as something to be used as perfume. Dabur comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, which you’re supposed to remove, but that I (not being a meticulous person in general) do not. Accordingly, the topnotes carry a bitter, smoky rubber and fuel exhaust overtone that’s curiously addictive. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s sandalwood component is roughly similar: it is creamy and aromatic, but tainted by all these weird little wafts of rubber and car exhaust that add character to the usual pale milk of sandalwood. It’s sexy as hell. Damn, give me a big, rich sandalwood base any day and you’ve got me. It’s like nuzzling into the chest of a biker who’s ridden through 50 miles of Mysore forest.

 

A friend (and fellow blogger) often teases me for not being clear in my review about whether I like the scent or not, and that’s fair: I tend to get bogged down in analysis and forget to tell you whether or not a scent connected with me at a personal level. So, let me be clear – I absolutely loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The opening is too powerful for my taste, but for the most part, I loved the warmth and ‘bigness’ of this perfume. It’s smoky, it’s complex, and it keeps you guessing without taxing your brain cells to oblivion. In other words, although there’s a certain amount of head-scratching and puzzling over notes to be done here (which will please bored fragheads), it’s also very easy to step away from the analysis and simply enjoy wearing the thing itself. And you know, apart from the over-fueled opening, I do.

 

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Aftelier Tango: A Review

13th February 2018

 

A common complaint about natural perfumes is that they rarely, if ever, transcend their materials. That without the lifting sparkle of aldehydes or the spaciousness of white musk or Iso E Super they take up a dense, muddy form, their back flattened against a wall. To be honest, as much as I love natural perfumes, it’s hard to deny this.

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Areej Le Doré Oud Zen v. Oud Piccante v. Russian Oud

11th February 2018

 

Let’s do a little side-by-side with the Areej Le Doré ouds, shall we? It will be kind of like when Basenoters start threads pitting one fragrance against another, like prize bulls, only hopefully not as cutthroat. My reviews will be purely impressionistic – short on helpful detail and long on the images that jump to mind when I wear them, so if you’re in the market for a quick take, read on. If you’re looking for something more detailed, look anywhere else. If that’s not a fair warning, then I don’t know what is…

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Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré: A Review

7th February 2018

 

The opening of Walimah Attar by Areej Le Doré is strangely familiar to me, and it haunts me for a while until I realize that it simply shares what I would characterize as the syrupy, sepia-toned density common to all blends of natural floral absolutes in attar or natural perfumery. When you mix a bunch of floral absolutes together, they combine to make a thick, oily-muddy fug of smells only vaguely recognizable as floral in dilution. Unlike the synthetic representations of flowers in mixed media perfumes or commercial perfumery, where you can clearly differentiate one floral note from another, the flowers in all-natural attars don’t give up their individual identities without a fight. They’re melted down into the soup, so to speak. But still, there are markers that can tip you off as to what’s there.

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Strangelove NYC: silencethesea, meltmyheart, & deadofnight

5th February 2018

 It’s difficult to figure out what Strangelove NYC is, as a brand. If you were to go by appearances alone – the fashionably minimalistic, almost text-free website, the $260 perfume necklaces with 1.25mls of perfume oil, the fact that Helena Christiansen is the brand’s spokesperson – you’d be forgiven for writing these off as perfumes for New York socialites, designed to look banging on the glossy, bronzed neck of a supermodel as she poses for a photo to go with her ITC Top Shelf interview.

 

But you’d be wrong.

 

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Marlou (50mls) d’Ambiguïté: A Review

26th October 2017

When I published an article on deer musk on Basenotes a while back, I expected a fair bit of pushback, but apart from one of my interviewees (JK DeLapp) getting kicked out of the International Perfume Foundation for participating in the article, nothing too dramatic happened. I did, however, receive an irate email from a man who has been importing and working with deer musk for decades, and who summarily issued me with a list of everything I’d got wrong.

 

And actually, that’s fine. While Basenotes is not exactly a peer-reviewed journal, it’s important that anything I leave out there on the Internet for all to see is as factually correct as possible.  I replied, thanking him, and assuring him that the glaring mistakes and inaccuracies would be corrected (and they were).

 

But there was one point on which I refused to budge – not because he wasn’t technically right, but because correcting it would have gone against a common English language usage, and that just seemed too esoteric to me.

 

Specifically, I’m referring to the fact that the word “musk” can only be applied to the raw material that comes from a musk deer’s pod, and not to similar material from any other animal species. In other words, it is incorrect to call, as I did in the article, the stuff that comes from a musk rat or the cape hyrax as “musk”, when only musk deer produce the substance known as musk. But, as I argued in my email to him, that would be going against the 99% of the human population who, when faced with anything remotely animalic will use the word “musky” to describe it. Just the way it is, baby.

 

So, despite the fact that there’s no deer musk in Marlou’s new fragrance, (50mls) d’Ambiguïté, it is most certainly musky. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say, and Marlou has stuffed every other musky-smelling substance they could find in here to arrive at a result that smells quite like deer musk. The notes list provided by the brand mentions costus (a musky-smelling botanical extract) and castoreum (beaver anal secrete), but I think they left out hyraceum (calcified urine of the cape hyrax), which to my nose plays a pivotal role in the composition. Also, there is cumin, which in large doses smells like musky armpit odor.

 

A feature (if not a problem) with most “musky” fragrances – damn it, that guy has got me using inverted commas around the word now – is that the animalic substances they use to create a musky effect are all so emphatic and distinctive that it’s difficult to avoid a certain sense of familiarity. If I were to draw a Venn diagram of the most famous animalic fragrances, the piece of paper would be almost obscured by the number of overlapping circles. In other words, try to describe Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens) without referencing Kiehl’s Original Musk, Salome (Papillon) without referencing Femme (Rochas) or Musc Tonkin (Parfum d’Empire), or the costus-loaded Arabian Horse (Parfumerie Generale) without referencing the costus-loaded L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris). It’s not easy, right?

 

For that reason, two things occur to me the minute I spray Marlou (50mls) d’Ambiguïté on: first, I say “wow!”, and second, I know this scent. The fact that it’s so familiar to me doesn’t matter because it’s also incredibly good – it just means that I drive myself crazy until I can identify what’s so familiar about it.

 

(50mls) d’Ambiguïté opens with a boozy note before sliding into a slightly flattened wool accord, oily and matted – like being hugged by a wet sheep who’s had a bit too much to drink. The brand mentions metal and pink pepper, but honestly, I don’t pick up on anything peppery at all; this goes straight to a warm costus and beeswax accord. I’m not usually a great fan of costus with its “wet dog” and oily scalp nuances, but it’s been done so incredibly well here that I don’t mind. It feels grimily intimate, but not greasy. The costus element makes me think of L’Air de Rien, but this is far less sweet and ambery. In fact, it has a savory or even salty aspect that recalls the celery seed and matted beard hair feel of Montecristo (Masque Fragranze). Interestingly, if you pay attention in the drydown phase, there’s also a dry, almost chocolaty tobacco leaf nuance that’s quite similar to the castoreum-driven tobacco/tea leaf notes in Bond T (Sammarco), itself quite animalic.

 

See? I can’t go one paragraph into describing (50mls) d’Ambiguïté without calling other scents into it. The hefty dose of B.O.-ish cumin is managed well here, as is the urinous hyraceum – both notes recall Salome (Papillon) quite strongly, but the treatment here is much softer, woodier, and more seamlessly worked into the fabric of the scent. It is, in short, less shocking than Salome, and far less confrontational. Still, (50mls) d’Ambiguïté is much dirtier than L’Animal Sauvage (Marlou), which in comparison appears now almost pretty and sugared in its kittenish demeanor. Compared to hardcore scents such as Salome, though, the new Marlou is firmly intermediate level.

 

I find (50mls) d’Ambiguïté to be pretty linear, apart from when the hyraceum increases in strength 2 hours in and that dry tobacco-ish tone from the castoreum develops in the far drydown – so if you like what you smell when you spray it on, you’ll likely be happy all the way through. There is a slightly briny, savory feel to the woolly, lanolin-like oiliness of the central accord, but although ylang is listed, I wonder if it could be something a little meatier, like the salted ham of an Easter lily? Either way, there’s really nothing floral or spicy or metallic about this fragrance: it’s musk, musk, muskity musk through and through. (Disclaimer: Although it’s not, you understand, actually musk.)

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