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Neandertal: Them, Us, Light, Dark

8th March 2021

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? 

 

Them

 

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).  

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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

 

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.

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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

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Dark

 

 

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.

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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.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

Ambrette Floral Iris Musk Review Rose Woods

Parfum d’Empire Le Cri de la Lumière: A Review

24th October 2017

Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of my all-time favorite perfumers, along with Gérald Ghislain of Histoires de Parfums. If push came to shove (and if you were to allow me a few Chanels, Guerlains, and attars), then I feel that I could survive quite happily on their perfumes alone. Parfum d’Empire and Histoires de Parfums were my gateway to niche perfumery, and still have the highest head count in my personal collection today.

 

Tabac Tabou is a masterpiece that always makes me think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its dirty yellow floral smearing smut all over the handsome, corduroy-fronted trousers of tobacco. Real gentleman farmer chic.

Ambre Russe has survived a ruthless cull of ambers from my collection, a pogrom that included even Amber Absolute, a fragrance I still call the ne-plus-ultra of ambers. I don’t wear Ambre Russe more than once a year, but it was my first niche purchase and still one of the most satisfying.

Musc Tonkin extrait, oh boy. Less of a musk and more of a salty, oysterish indolic floral, but sensual nonetheless, in an auto-erotic kind of way. It suffocates me most pleasantly, like that game where you see how long you can hold your breath under water.

 

When I saw the notes for Le Cri de la Lumière, I thought how brave it was of Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to release a perfume that sounded so much like Chanel No. 18. There was also the fact that there was another ambrette-iris perfume in the Parfum d’Empire stable, namely Equistrius, which Luca Turin had already compared to No. 18 in Perfumes: The Guide. (Personally, I found Equistrius to smell very little like No. 18, the former being musky in a cocoa-ish, velvety, and opaque way, the latter musky in an angular, crystalline way.)

 

As it turns out, though, Le Cri de la Lumière has much more in common with clean, ozonic musks like Chypre 21 by Heeley and L’Antimatiere by Les Nez than with the more buttery Equistrius and the fruiter, greener Chanel No. 18.

 

Le Cri opens with the crisp but slightly alcoholic green apple nuances of ambrette seed, which are immediately folded into the silvery whipped air of orris and the smell of a hot iron hitting a starched white shirt. The fuzzy “cold air” and starched linen brightness of the opening made me think immediately of the Chinese steam laundry room feel of Encens Mythique d’Orient, especially at the start, where the green rose is powdered upwards by a whoosh of aldehydes.

 

All of the words used by the brand to describe the perfume ring true – “crystalline”, “vegetal”, “opalescent” and “lustrous” are words that instantly jump to my mind when I smell this. The brand mentions luxury, and I feel this too, especially in the first five minutes when the full force of that silver orris butter is felt.

 

Unfortunately, where Chanel No. 18 takes a bare-bones structure and makes each of the elements sing for their supper, Le Cri de la Lumière quickly reveals that its skeletal framework isn’t hiding anything deeper or more nuanced. Although a dry, greenish rose appears in the drydown, it does nothing to mask or enliven the yawning gulf of white musk that opens up behind the arresting opening.

 

That is not to say that perfumes like this don’t have their place. Many people love these crunchy woody floral musks for exactly the reason that I dislike them: they are anti-perfume. They are the smell of clean air, freshly-laundered shirts, and the clipped minimalism of nothing at all. It reminds me of something Holden’s dead-eyed girlfriend in Mindhunter might wear – wry and deliberately affectless, as if emotion was being taxed.

 

I don’t dislike Le Cri de la Lumière, but I find it puzzling that something so curiously bloodless came out of the Parfum d’Empire stable. Chanel proved with No. 18 that it’s possible for a minimalist composition to be lively and full of charm; I’m not sure why, with their history of putting out such obscenely rich, talkative fragrances Parfum d’Empire pressed the mute button on this one.

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