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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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Hyde by Hiram Green

21st November 2018

 

Hyde by Hiram Green is an exercise in birch tar. Actually, it’s an exercise in how to do birch tar without swamping the structure in an overwhelming wall of BBQ smoke. The scent opens with the peculiarities of rectified birch tar on full display: the tarriness of melted gumboots brushed with the cooling tingle of wintergreen and the medicinal sting of TCP (Germolene). A pleasantly boozy warmth, a licorice-like chewiness, stirs underneath the surface.

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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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Concept versus Execution: I Am Trash, But Not Today, & Vetiverissimo

8th November 2018

 

It might seem to regular readers of this blog (all 23 of you) that, for a fragrance writer, I write very infrequently about perfume. In fact, I write about perfume every day. But since it’s either copy for big fragrance retailers or work on a book that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, most people will just never come across it.

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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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DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Haiku

25th September 2018

 

Welcome to Part 4 (Japanese Haiku ) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.

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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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Carta Moena 12|69: A Review

13th April 2018

 

If you’ve ever been disappointed in a fragrance that’s been advertized as smelling like tea and then goes on to smell nothing like it, then put Carta Moena 12|69 on your to-test list pronto. Utilizing a little-used essential oil called moena alcanfor, which is distilled from the leaves, bark, and branches of the moena tree native to Amazonian Peru, this fragrance smells truly and honestly of tea. Specifically, it knits together the aroma of a really earthy Pu-Erh tea with the tannic, catch-in-your-throat quality of cold, slightly over-brewed black tea.

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Neela Vermeire Creations Niral: A Review

11th April 2018

Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan,  a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.

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Le Labo Ylang 49: Some Thoughts

19th March 2018

Le Labo Ylang 49 is a scent that gives me some serious cognitive dissonance. I keep wearing it and trying to figure out why, and this is what I’ve been able to come up with:

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