The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.
That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet.
I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we?
Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.
Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).
It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used). The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.
Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.
In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.
Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.
However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.
And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.
Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.
Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.
Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.