It’s been awhile since I’ve reflected upon the stinkers and duds that I’ve encountered, and everyone knows it’s much more fun to read about the gross things that people hate rather than the beautiful things they love. So here are five gross, awful perfumes that I’ve have the misfortune of smelling in the past few years. I’ll include links because one person’s trash could possibly be another person’s trashy disgusting treasure–and just because I hated these, it doesn’t mean that you will.
Imagine you won a contest run by your local radio station, you know, the one with the obnoxious sexist pig morning show duo, generically called something like “Big Dude Bro and the Little Vermin.” Yeah, so you–lucky you!–entered this contest where the prize was the privilege of getting to spend the night in a local spot purported to be haunted. Great, right?! Well, turns out it’s just a sketchy vape shop and the “ghost” is like, how someone saw Jesus’s face in a baked potato or something. And that actually happened next door in the crusty diner. The moment you walk in the door you are assaulted by the sickening aroma of maple syrup vape juice, a cloying waft from an empty rum raisin ice cream container crawling with many-legged insects, and the dusty fumes of your meanest ancestor’s cherry pipe tobacco. Was it a haunting, or was it Marc Jacobs Decadence? You conclude that while you did not experience anything in the slightest bit supernatural, this vile combination of notes will certainly haunt you for the rest of your days.
Givenchy L’Interdit is…oof. It makes my hips ache, and my knees creak. It makes me feel like a fucking fossil. This is a candied fruity floral, like crushed shards of every flavor Jolly Rancher forming the vague shape of a flower, but I think anyone who smells it will agree it is no flower found in nature. Do you know who smelled it and loved it, and thought it was “bomb” and “fire” and “literally everything,” though? A quartet of college girls who robbed a fast-food restaurant and stole a car to fund their spring break plans and who then got bailed out of jail by a skeezy clown of a drug dealer/rapper/arms dealer who looks just like James Franco. I’m pretty sure they are all about this bikini bacchanalia neon candy Harmony Korine girls gone wild hedonist hell of a scent, and man, they can have it. I’m too old for this shit.
ELdO You Or Someone Like You is the screechy confrontational performance art of a person having a freaky public meltdown, a full-out adult tantrum, taking place midafternoon in a popular coffee chain or a ubiquitous lingerie store in the mall, and which is probably being recorded by spectators for millions of future views on YouTube even as the melodrama is unfolding. It’s the synthetic aroma of an indoor public space filled with too many people breathing at once and poorly circulated air, the awkward musk of distressed and embarrassed onlookers, the cool mineralic concrete of silent complicity, the acrid, antiseptic arrogance of entitlement, and the tang of weaponized tears and performative victimhood of someone who felt personally attacked by Victoria’s Secret’s return policy regarding thong panties or the fact that Starbucks was out of oat milk for their ridiculous latte order. You or Someone like you is the fragrance of someone making a massively upsetting stink in front of a crowd and feeling absolutely no shame or remorse because they have a right to everything, they deserve everything merely because they exist.
This is a very horny perfume. But a sort of sad, lonely, horniness. It’s the drunk middle-aged lady at a concert or local gig, or festival, stumble-dancing alone. (I am middle-aged now, but in my memory, every incarnation of this woman always seems older than I will ever be.) It smells like what both partners might wear when they pack for their hedonism cruise in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship, and they’re on the prowl for their unicorn. It’s a bit desperate and hopeless, like that last radiant burst of manic energy that you put into a thing that’s doomed to fail, so what the hell, and why not. As to the actual fragrance, it’s a sticky stain on your sheets that, if you dare get close enough to sniff, smells of overripe raspberries, lychee syrup drizzled shaved ice, and a sickly sweet cola drink spiked with patchouli bitters. Instead of spending your money on Angel Nova, I think it wise for you invest in an extra session with your therapist.
I first sampled Montale’s Cafe Intense years ago when I was initially getting into fragrance and perfumes. I guess I was feeling a little nostalgic for that sample a kind MUA-er sent me way back when! My recollection was that it was meant to be a coffee-forward scent, but…it is not. My partner observed that it smells like a teenage girl who typically wore a lot of candied, sugary scents and who wanted to level up with fancy florals and didn’t quite hit the mark. She tried, I guess, was his conclusion. My thoughts are more specific. This is a cloying fruity-floral that smells exactly like Rose Jam from LUSH, which I bitterly loathe because that smells just like those gaggy sweet Jolly Ranchers hard candies that all the popular kids were always eating in 6th grade. This, in turn makes me think of the MOST popular girl; we’ll call her Mary Lesa Howell–because that is, in fact her actual name–who broke off and ATE part of my sugar crystal science project that year. I hate science projects, and I have never forgiven Mary Lesa Howell, and this awful perfume can go straight to hell.
Roja Dove Apex: when you live in a pineapple under the sea, but you’ve converted it to a Harley Davidson showroom.
We’re encountering a rose who is not just a protagonist in a horror film but perhaps the film–a cursed film–itself. And not some schlocky nonsense that’s all jump scares and genre cliches; we’re talking the last spine-tingling, pants-shittingly terrifying film you saw and that you’ve begun to have ghastly nightmares about which are starting to eerily echo and reverberate through your waking hours. Court of Ravens by 4160 Tuesdays is, in short, and on paper, an incensey rose chypre–but rumors are the incense component is the boiling blood of a mad cultist mixed with strange and stinging otherworldly herbs; the rose grew sickly and sinister on the unmarked grave of a hanged murderer, and the chypre, well, it’s the usual materials of oakmoss and balsamic elements, but pounded to an oozing paste on an ancient black altar with a secret number of drops from a cracked, cloudy bottle, and I don’t know what’s in that esoteric essence, but it smells shockingly of acrid fright-sweat, bitter adrenaline, and is underscored by a host of sharp, burning pheromones. So, you have probably reached the conclusion that I must love this, and you’re right, and I’m glad you guys can read between the lines.
I am testing BDK’s Ambre Safrano and thinking of a collection of contemporary poetry that I’ve been reading. I’m making this connection because it’s really bad poetry. And I am now 0/2 with the samples that I have tried from BDK Parfums. Now I realize both poetry and perfume and all forms of art are intensely subjective, and what’s considered “bad” in terms of any of it can have a lot to do with personal preference. Ambre Saffano is meant to take us on a faraway olfactory journey, but I think they’ve vastly overestimated the distance this scent has the capability of encompassing because the places that it shows us seem pretty limited.. It goes as far as your laptop screen or the phone, a few inches from your face, as it’s the olfactory equivalent of fanfiction without a single measure of spice, none of the characters have any chemistry, and the writing is weirdly overwrought for a story with absolutely no plot, and then you take that uninspired mess and run it through some sort of poetry generator, and you end up a word salad that somehow manages to be nonsensical and boring and not only are you not enjoying it, it’s actually giving you a bit of a headache. And if I haven’t told you anything about what it actually smells like, that’s because I truly do not know. But imagine a bowl of plastic fruit. A facsimile of fruit, of something sweet and seasonal and juicy that once existed somewhere, but the person who molded this fruit maybe has never even seen this fruit. Imagine you melted down to a slurry those waxy, musty plastic apples and grapes and bananas and dumped in a Costco-sized bag of Truvia, and attempted to make cotton candy with it. And then, for some ungodly reason, you wrote a poem about it. Ok, this review is all over the place, and you’re probably walking away from it dumber than when you started. If it’s any consolation, I am too.
Filigree and Shadow’s The Purest Blue is all sandalwood; sandalwood can feel so lofty sometimes, like it’s speaking some sort of angelic language that you can’t quite parse; it’s over your head. But this is sandalwood that feels nicely tethered, as if there’s a terrestrial translator working on my behalf to decode those epiphanies. What’s even better is that this earthy element, he and I are real kindred spirits, and through his filter, those celestial sandalwood messages get peppered with the slightest bit of salty impish musk, and in his own words, it turns out the angels are insisting “bitch, you need an exorcist.” Tell Me About The Forest (You Once Called Home)is fir and spruce and juniper and is an immediate love. You know I have a huge fondness for fairy-tale forest fragrances, but so many of them are sticky, a fairy forest syrup that you measure a bar spoon into for some sort of Hansel and Gretel cocktail. This doesn’t have that treacly quality; it’s…dryer? Maybe a bit bitter. I feel like it’s a bit of a hermit-ascetic with an acerbic wit and a love of irony. It reminds me of dense, darkened thickets in the midnight woodland art of Tin Can Forest.
I don’t know with certainty that The people you love become ghosts inside you from Death and Floral and is inspired by Robert Montgomery’s poetic conceptual artworks, but much like this particular installation, this perfume is a translucent, tender, neon poem of light and loss and longing. The Death and Floral site doesn’t really list specifics with regard to the notes, just an evocative combination of adjectives revolving around musks, florals, and a “cold vanilla”. Not being a perfumer and not caring to learn anything about it, I can only guess as to what that means. In this case, it conjures a spectral vanilla shrouded in wintergreen morning veils and draped in shimmering shadowed musky, powdery violet dewdrop memento mori jewels. I don’t know if this is wintergreen, maybe it’s birch or sarsparilla, but I recognize something in the family of mentholated musty medicinal miasma, and typically I don’t care for these notes. You could say that in fact, I actively hate them. But I strangely love the deeply unsettling haunted house cold spots drop in temperature that it lends to this already melancholic scent, and I’ve found myself unexpectedly craving it when I’m not wearing it, and when it is on my wrists, I cannot stop sniffing them.
Destrier from House of Matriarch is perhaps the first leather scent I have ever not just tolerated but actually liked. I’m not sure if I’m even a leather fan, but I appreciate that this one just goes so hard. It is not putting on airs, and it’s not in disguise (unlike leather-clad Spongebob Squarepants, above); there is no mistaking it. AND it’s a rather 360° immersive scent experience as well as absolutely immediate, with no lead-in or preamble. Imagine you are an overachieving LARPer, and you took three years of leatherworking classes so that you could make the perfect leather coin pouch to hang from your belt for this intensely anticipated festival you’ve been dying to attend. Even though it’s a tiny piece of a larger, more intricate costume, you want every detail absolutely perfect, from the tanning to the stitching to the embossing. You’ve spent so much time on this accessory that you’re smelling those tanning agents, those fats and oils and chemicals and musks, even in your dreams now. And in waking life, too, even after the event, you are one with that leather coin purse, and you carry it with you everywhere you go. At this point in time, it is stuffed with cedar chips, sweet grasses, and soft moss…because you spent all your coins on those expensive classes and leatherworking tools.
Is Penhaligon’s Babylonmeant to evoke Babylon, the den of iniquity and pinnacle of sin? Or perhaps that groovy Satanic prostitute, arrayed in purple and scarlet, decked with pearls and precious stones, with her golden cup spilling with abominations and filthiness? I’m not sure this softly-spiced, velvet-wooded fragrance is as outrageous or dramatic as all of that. Imagine that golden cup, surely sensationalized to pique public indignation, was instead some sort of humble, unassuming vessel, a bowl of roughly carved but fragrant sandalwood, filled with a milky liquid, redolent of honeyed saffron, the aromatic, earthy warmth of nutmeg and coriander’s peppery-aniseed camphor, and delicately resinous, subtly smoky vanilla. If you’re a fan of Dior’s Hypnotic Poison, but don’t love that obnoxious root beer note, I think you’d find Babylon a more tasteful option. I do enjoy this scent immensely, but I’d still like to smell a more vivid and exuberant perfumed interpretation of this apocalyptic beauty.
Over on TikTok today, I gave a brief, updated tour of my perfume cabinet for 2023. And now that I’ve said that, I am thinking maybe I need to do a longer one for my much-neglected YouTube channel–what do you think?
This little show and tell was at the request of someone who left a comment on one of my previous TikTok videos, but even so, in recent years, I’ve become a little self-conscious about showing off my collection. I know it’s a lot (and believe it or not, that’s not the part I’m worried about being judged for.) I don’t mind saying ‘BEHOLD MY STUFF,” but I never want it to come off as ‘BEHOLD ALL OF THE THINGS I HAVE THAT YOU DO NOT HAVE.” I never want to make someone feel bad about themselves or less-than.
Please keep in mind this is nearly 20 years’ worth of collecting perfumes. I know that when you are new to a passion or enthusiasm, it’s tempting to want to keep up with everything that reviewers or influences are talking about, and it’s easy to spend a lot —way too much—money in doing so. You don’t have to build a collection overnight. You certainly don’t have to build a collection that looks like this. Lord knows, I sure don’t need this many perfumes. But I love to sniff and ponder beautiful, evocative things, and even if I’ve already got something beautiful, maybe even many beautiful somethings, I’m always on the hunt for that holy grail of beauty. It is a strange and wonderful and horrible craving that I can never seem to satisfy.
At any rate, I just suppose this is a little disclaimer and just pre-emptively answering a few frequently (un) asked questions. Because most of you are too polite, but you have perhaps wondered these things. Although I know there are people out there who have twice as many, three times as many, fragrances on their shelves as mine, I am aware that even this is a ridiculous amount of perfumes, and you really don’t need anything even close to this number. I’d love to say that these were all PR or gifted and that I didn’t spend my own money on them…but honestly, except for some of the indie scents from niche-interest creators that I am friendly with, none of them were free, or even discounted. I’m not that kind of writer/reviewer. I’m not on any brand’s radars. I’m just someone who enjoys writing about perfume and does it joyfully and generously even though I am in no way getting paid for it– and as a matter of fact, this enthusiasm has cost me more money than I would ever be comfortable confessing to. But. I do have a full-time job that I have had for almost 20 years now. I am married to someone who has a full-time job. So we are a two-income household…with no children, no car payments, and no student loans. We saved up for this house and between that and the sale of our old home, it is paid for in full– so we don’t even have a mortgage. I don’t go out to restaurants, I don’t travel, and I don’t spend a lot of money anywhere else. So, sure. I am almost stupidly privileged to have the play money to afford an obsession.
Well. Maybe that’s not entirely true. I do have a Patreon where I write about perfume, and the wonderful supporters of that endeavor are giving me money every month. So I am sort of getting paid to write about perfume, I guess? But maybe not in the traditional way of things.
This shadowy photo above was the extent of my collection in 2011 when I wrote about my ten favorite scents for the bloodmilk blog. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that these are still my best-loved fragrances…and yet I have kept acquiring more bottles. What if there’s something still out there that I have not experienced? What if there’s a favorite yet to be found? I don’t dare stop looking! I had to go searching through my Tumblr to find this photo again. Can you believe I still update that thing? I do! I’m stubborn. I’ll be on Tumblr til I die, probably. If you’re curious as to what I was into in March of 2011, have a peek, hee hee!
And is my all-time favorite scent still the cool meditative forest temple dream of CdG Kyoto? (Yes.)
But I also have some new favorites!
The Holy Mountain (this is the old formula from Apoteker Tepe) If you are in the market for a smoky fragrance that smells like maybe the smoke cleared after a super-beardy wizard threw a mystical resin into a fire to conjure an ancient dragon lord or something, but the dragon flew away and the wizard has gone to bed and the fire has burned down so that only the embers are smoldering and the deeply scented, resinous smoke has seeped into all the old wooden beams in the top-most tower room where all the magical shit is locked up…well, The Holy Mountain may be the scent for you.
Stroopwafel from Scent Trunk is a gorgeous gourmand that balances what could potentially be intensely heavy and cloying with something that still feels light and airy, and effortlessly cozy. It feels perfect for what can be a really intense time of year when you’re pulled in every direction, you’re spread too thin, and there’s never enough time. The holidays can be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining, and the last thing you want to do is top all that off with a fragrance that leans too far into any of that mess. Stroopwafel is a scent that feels nostalgic to a point, but in the way that books and dreams are nostalgic, unsullied by what goes on in your real life, and even then, it’s saved by various other elements before it can get its hooks into you and become something maudlin or suffocatingly sentimental. This is not to say I don’t connect with this scent, because I do! But in a way that feels like it’s a treasure just for me. Like being wrapped up in something special that I don’t have to share and in it, creating memories of moments that are solely my own. Nostalgia happening now, rose-tinting the present as I am living it. It opens as the rich, fragrant gooey chewy treat it’s named for, that buttery bourbon caramel syrup center and brown sugar deliciousness of that sort of not-baked-all-the-way-through waffled cookie sandwiching it. But alongside all that cozy, sweet warmth, there’s a breath of something cool and breezy, this side of piney marjoram, that side of woodsy cedar, that makes itself known. It’s the emotional equivalent of waking up too warm in bed at night and slipping your toes from beneath your quilt to give them a little chill. Or perhaps baking up a storm in a humid kitchen on a wintry day and cracking the window open to let in a frigid gust of air. In the end, a lovely vanilla musk rounds out the fragrance. At this point, and until you can no longer detect it on your skin, it smells like the sweater you spent all day wearing in that cookie kitchen, but with a light dusting of snow after you left it on top of the woodpile overnight.
Fort and Manle Confessions of a Garden Gnome I don’t believe this earnest little gnome’s secret to be particularly incendiary, but it does present some specific imagery. Shirking garden tasks to sneak into a woodland affair he’s heard rumors about, and, expecting an opulent ball, he washes behind his loamy soil-caked ears and spritzes on his little limbs a soft herbal cologne with notes of violet leaf and strange citrus. What he finds upon arrival is a fairy ring rave; intoxicated pixies and sprites flirting and frolicking across pepper moss, under disco balls reflecting the birch and cedar trees… and the guilty face of the gnome who doesn’t know how to dance.
Chapel Factory’s Heresy is the sharp green metallic floral of violet leaf, mingled with cool aromatic cedar, lofty sandalwood, and the smoked leather notes of vetiver; elements which alchemize into the austere elegance and kindred glooms of a dry, peppery violet incense. If you like the dark ambiance and nocturnal aesthetic of dungeon synth coupled with spectral visionary Simon Marsden’s black and white photographs of haunted ruins and moonlit abbeys, this is a transportive scent that will spirit you away to those eerie, ominous realms.
Oud Wood from Tom Ford is a ghostly, glacial coniferous rosewood sandalwood melange of chilly, bitter, peppery woods. It is a tiny, sinister statue of a scent in an empty room where the temperature drops suddenly, with no explanation. The perfumed version of a little gremlin that appears in a haunting tale; one that skitters in the corners of your vision when the eye is focused elsewhere and inches eerily to your pillow when you’re at the knife’s edge of wakefulness and dream.
Madar from PoesieMilky, custardy pudding delicately spiced with cardamom’s weirdness and melancholic orange blossom water and kooky sugared pistachios, and damn if this isn’t a low-key melodramatic goth rice pudding on its way to a Cure concert.
November in the Temperate Deciduous Forest from For Strange Women is the aroma of a mushroom queen surveying their loamy domain on a cool, rainy morning. A soft green fern tickles your gills as your mycelial threads in turn wave at the worms moving through the rich earth beneath you; the ground mist rises through the dense forest canopy as cool trickles of rainwater drip off the oak and beech and fir trees to dampen the velvet, verdant moss carpeting a cropping of stones nearby. Your reverie is interrupted by the scent of expensive leather hiking boots on the breeze, crunching leaf detritus, and tiny woodland creatures beneath its self-important tread. You smell the smoke and steam and artisanal resins and tannins of a gourmet flask of tea, and before you can let out a little spore-filled, mushroomy warning, you hear a shrill, nasally human female voice chirp HEY Y’ALL WELCOME BACK TO MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL. Oh no, you despair, it’s the slow-living mushroom forager YouTube influencers. You sincerely hope they pass you over for your poisonous cousins.
So I guess I will wrap up this tour by letting you know that if you have any questions about my collection, my habits or preferences or anything related to something me + perfume, let me know, and I will round all of those up and address then in an upcoming YouTube video!
If you are curious about all of the perfume reviews I have ever written, you can find them over at fragrantica (which is not a great site and I am trying not to be there), so you can also find all of my reviews on parfumo. Curious about BPAL reviews? I have a PDF with loads and loads of them! It hasn’t been updated since I created it in 2020, but I’ll get around to it sooner or later…
Dapper Mandrake Goes A Courtin’ (elegant tendrils of mandrake, vetiver, and galangal root splashed with a debonaire cologne) This earthy, spicy, jaunty rhizome is a snazzy gent and has splashed a verdantly aromatic-cedary-citrusy essence on his whiskery roots to make a good first impression, put his best foot forward, so to speak. It is unfortunate that in doing so, he neglected to put either foot through a pants leg. But he smells so dashing and handsome that you can almost forget the fact that he showed up for your date without a stitch of clothing on.
Ginormous Yule-ified Yard Skeleton(Sandalwood bones festooned with a pumpkin garland and twinkling multicolored lights groaning under the weight of crushed peppermint snow) You know how sometimes those glossy, glowing multicolored strands of Christmas lights on a dark, cold wintry night look like sour, sugar-crystal candied neon orbs strung on chewy licorice filaments? No? Well, they do to me! Imagine you could just crunch your way through all of them. That’s what this scent smells like, just pure, irradiated broken-toothed-but-worth-it joy.
Snow White 2022(a chilly, bright perfume: flurries of virgin snow, crisp winter wind, and the faintest breath of night-blooming flowers.) Though I’ve tried several versions of the Lab’s Snow White over the years –even one all the way back in 2005!– I have never once written a review for it. It always smells like a revelation, and you know how wily and ineffable those things can be. It’s almost impossible to paint a picture of; it’s all fleeting impressions, like a dream that you wake up from and you’re like, “…I was dreaming of Edmund Dulac’s Snow Queen, and sugared almonds, and fluffy, and chilly-almost-minty-but-it can’t-be-mint-because-I-hate-mint, right? And vanilla, coconutty filigree fluffy snowflakes, and whispery arctic-floral musks? …And you were there, too!” You know, that kind of dream. It sweetly cocooned you all night, and even though you can’t recall the specifics, you can still smell it on your wrists in the morning.
Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake (a big hunk of homemade fruitcake soaking in 90 proof) buttery yellow cake batter laden with the hypernatural lurid fruity sweetness of jade green and synthwave sunset red candied cherries, a sour bit of citron, and the tartness of dried pineapple; there’s a measuring cup nearby spilling with the potent tannic, caramel-scented fumes of oak barrel-aged whiskey and yeah, you’re eventually going to drench the cake in it after it’s done baking and leave the whole thing on the counter to mellow overnight, but for now you’re gonna stick a straw in it and slurp a bit of the top as a treat for the cook. Maybe munch on a few of those pecans you decided at the last moment not to stir in. It’s your kitchen, your rules!
Pink and Blue Candy Canes(the pillowy warmth of strawberry cotton candy, cooled with a gentle breath of blueberry vanilla mint) I don’t know how to explain this in a way that makes sense to people who function normally. But do you ever resist something or not allow yourself to experience something because you feel in your heart that x/y/or z thing isn’t meant “for people like you”? I’m not even certain what that means, exactly, but it’s a feeling that’s been tethered to my soul, strangling it, for as long as I can remember. And whatever those off-limit things are, I know them when I see them. They’re usually fun, playful, or exciting things, and there’s just something deep-seated within me that’s forever admonishing me, making me feel foolish even for thinking that I could ever partake in anything merry and mirthful, that my presence would ever be welcome at the table of joy. I think the pink and blue candy cane, that nostalgic, old-fashioned hard candy hook in a fusion of blue and pink twisted stripes, epitomizes all of those feelings in one eye-twitchingly sweet, crunchy confection. BPAL’s interpretation of these sweets is a fluffy, spun sugar strawberry jam-scented hug, with a cool, ozonic blueberry pancake whisper of “treat yo’self.” It is warm, and it is gentle, and in my reviews, I desperately try not to use the same words and descriptors as the Lab has used in their note listing (because what’s even the point of me writing this here and now if I am doing that?) But their description of this scent is exactly what it is, and my ramblings here about it are basically just me barfing my angst on you in the meantime.
Birb Mob(starry musk and smoldering pink peppercorn ashes cascading into a snowdrift) Frosty, flickering starlit vistas; a graceful matrix of fragmented crystalline horizon; a dazzling and dreamlike view observed by a curious, many-eyed creature, its hollow bones aloft in a strange sky illuminated by waves of flowing aurora, while three pale moons simultaneously rise in the evening. A soft woody-rosy floral piquancy scents the air as silvery stars fall like snowflakes, sizzling and shimmering in the breathless cold.
Black Julbocken Alchemy Lab (shaggy black wool and a slushy tangle of juniper, mistletoe, winter sage, spikenard, white moss, and terebinth) A blood-memory of pagan festivals, and mystical ecstasy, evanescent shadows coalescing into giant woodland spirits cavorting in the dark, the scent of the animalic and fungal, leathery root and balsamic wood, a reed-wrapped parcel tossed in the flames at midnight, gingery, peppery spiced sparks drifting lazily skyward.
Welcome Unto Thee (champagne and marshmallows) A fairy-tale fruit danish, some lush combination of passionfruit and apricot (but somehow not fruity at all? Like a ghostly indentation where the fruit once briefly was nestled, and then a gremlin crept in and ate it, so it never made it into the finished pastry?) swirled with cream cheese and wrapped in twinkly, effervescent vanilla cream soda cellophane.
Snow Snake (a chilly interpretation of Snake Oil; sweet, spiced musk with a crunch of snow and frost-hardened patchouli) I’ve countless times alluded to the sugared vanilla incense patchoulified potency of Snake Oil, how I adore it, how it’s a massively swoony scent –but the key word there is “massive.” There is no such thing as applying a “little bit” of Snake Oil; even a scant droplet is probably too much. I’ve not yet encountered a combination that can tame its monstrous throw…until they paired it with the wintry shivers of their snow, frost, and ice notes. Imagine Snake Oil’s narcotic slithers relentlessly winding their way up your nose, but then envision those heady slitherations crystalizing into the magic of spiraling frozen undulations, blanketed in the cold and hibernating, snake-charmed, chilled out.
Shortbread Diamonds (crumbly dough made with brown sugar and butter) You think this is going to be a simple, straightforward scent. You would be wrong. It begins as rich, buttery, generously salted–nearly briny– shortbread crust, but just as you’re imagining it quivering with, say, an eggy black olive and manchego cheese mixture just before entering a 350° oven to quiche-ify, it surprises you. It becomes a lightly caramelized oaky vanilla-orchid floral, the type of thing that wants to catch more flies with honey than it does with vinegar, the thing that softens and sweetens with age and experience and has learned to pick its battles, and sometimes that still just actually means all of the battles because your life and what you’ve made of it–and of yourself, in all of your sweet and salty and quichey and caramel incarnations, in all the tragedy and beauty of being a human–is delicious and gorgeous and worth fighting for. I don’t know why this fucking perfume is making me cry, but here we are. The above image is my attempt at making the recipe that inspired this fragrance (I’m afraid I let them get a little brown, le whoopsie.)
Cranberry Honeyed Sandalwood Patchouli Root A gnome and a hare picnic in the forest and share a small pot of sour, tart, aromatic cranberry tea lively with woodland nuances, along with a napkin-knotted plate of rich, brown, sugared-sprinkled honey cake. A bear on a scavenger hunt interrupts. A tense moment. A frog belches on a nearby log. The hare’s whiskers quiver with of mixture of fear and giggles and a sweet dusting of crumbs, and soon, the trio is laughing companionably together as new friends.
Carved Wooden Bookstore (polished oak bark, tiny books with tea-stained pages and faux-leather binding, a scattering of dust, and the gleaming painted fur of a porcelain calico book shop cat) The rich, oaken warmth of a firelit library in a grand country estate that you’ve been entreated to make yourself at home in; your host had to take a phone call, so please, browse the leather-bound titles, flip through those well-worn pages to your heart’s content. Beeswax candles flicker in the reflections of the gilt-edged mirrors hung from every spare inch of unshelved wall space, and as you marvel at the glowing refractions on the shimmering glass, a curious draft tickles your skin and shivers up your spine. Where could this peculiar chill be coming from? The room is nearly as warm as being swaddled in a down comforter in your bed at home! You trace its path to the bookshelf, where you notice a fine layer of dust along the surfaces of the floor-to-ceiling shelving and their contents, with the exception of one pristine title that appears absolutely untouched by time or human hand. You reach out to examine the book, and as your fingers graze the pebbled binding, you hear a series of clicks and the grating of hinges as that solid wooden shelf swings heavily inward…revealing a hidden staircase. Do you a.) hastily fumble the scene back into order, take a seat, and wait for your host? or b.) grab a candle stick and descend into the dark? In either scenario, you’ll smell of a mysteriously cozy Choose Your Own Adventure room full of books and firelight and waxy, dripping candles sitting atop delicate powdery doilies.
Boozy Lemon Shortbread (a sharp, limoncello-spiked curd baked into a shortbread crust, dusted with powdered sugar) The scent of the best, the ultimate, the most winningest cookie to bring to cookie swap night! Just the perfect amount of sugar, fresh lemon zest, and real butter, the good stuff, Kerrygold or your local dairy equivalent–and your secret ingredient: each cookie is served with a full-sized lemon drop martini. I’m not saying you’ll win because you got the judges drunk (and I’m not saying you won’t be disqualified* for bribing the judges!), but I think either way, it’ll be a good time.
*you guys, when I was writing this, for the life of me, I could not think of the word “disqualified.” I kept wanting to write “excommunicated.”
Carved Wooden Cultist Lair (sweet, dark incense swirling around flame-scorched ebony wood) I am currently reading a book called The Honeys by Ryan Lasala. I am actually listening to the audio version at 1.40 speed because I am attempting to read 200 books this year, and in scheming about all the ways that I can make this happen, I’m trying all the little hacks. So this story–which is marketed as a YA queer novel, described as “Heathers” meets “Midsommer,” but it doesn’t really feel YA to me, but then again, my idea of YA is from 20 years ago– takes place at a prestigious summer camp where there is a secretive, elusive clique of teenage girls. The Honeys. I think they are aspiring beekeepers or somesuch. I’m not very far into the book, and they are not the main character (the MC is a gorgeously witty gender-fluid individual, Mars, who is at the camp investigating his twin sister’s death), but when I smelled the incense component of Carved Wooden Cultist Lair, I immediately thought of The Honeys, and of honey in general. If you heat honey on the stovetop, and the lusty, dusky scent of wildflowers, orange blossoms, and jasmine, warming and cooling and hardening in some sort of arcane incense-making process, results in a series of small vaguely bee-shaped cones, smelling of burnt sugars, resins, musks, and florals. They dry and age on sharp, peppery, balsamic-smelling wooden shelves and are sold on roadside stands and farmer’s markets, and whoever lights a little bee in their home is visited by strange, sweet, stinging dreams. (This doesn’t happen in the book, FYI. Just me letting my imagination run away with me.)
Knave of Snowflakes(blackcurrant tarts and chilled rose jam) This is so pretty, it’s almost unreal. Sweet, juicy-jammy, ripe blackcurrants cooked to deep purple stickiness, filling an almond pastry, topped with pillowy mounds of coconut vanilla custard, and served with a tiny scoop of wild rose petal ice cream. And somehow, none of this is in the least bit foody– there’s this ghostly bitter-green veil that delivers the whole thing as a luminous, ferny fougère.
Teapot Full of Angst (black tea with vetiver, almond, black patchouli, tobacco absolute, bitter lemon peel, and oud) What an incredibly weird and wonderful fragrance! This is a thick, rich, gooey tea-flavored fudge spiked with citrus and which reveals some evocative earthy elements that emerge as it dries. It’s as if a pot of strong tea was boiled down with a teacup full of brown sugar, a goodly glug of molasses, and slivers of bright yellow lemon peel, and then the mixture was stirred together with an entire box of sweet, nutty, whole wheat graham crackers crumbs and left on a counter to cool and set overnight. Fast forward about twenty years, and rather than the treat itself, this fragrance smells of its dusty, stained magazine clipping recipe card and which was secretly buried in the back garden by your eccentric relative because they didn’t want anyone to have their recipe after they died. This is why we dig it up and make the hell out of it and shout the recipe from the rooftops– because we don’t believe in gatekeeping the good stuff.
Need more Yule scents? Have a peep at my Yule reviews from 2021 and a single review for 2019 though I could swear I have several years’ worth of BPAL Yule reviews floating around that out there. And I know this because…
…PSSSST! Did you know I have collected all of my BPAL reviews into one spot? I’m about a year behind with adding new stuff to the document, but as it stands, there are over 60 PAGES of my thoughts and rambles on various limited-edition scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab over the years: BPAL REVIEWS BY S. ELIZABETH (PDF download)
I’ve been writing about perfumes on and off for the past twenty years, but I think this is actually the first year I have successfully shared a perfume review round-up, consistently, for twelve months running! Well done, me!
I have been generously gifted with some samples by Caitlin at Red River Apothecary, and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the fragrances she selected for me. I loved the first two that I tried so much that I didn’t even want to wait to sniff the other three before sharing my thoughts. (Edited to add…well, there were five, but somehow I lost one along the way!) I’ll begin with Moria. I do love a scent built around dragon’s blood, and this is one of the most stunning examples I have ever encountered. Dragon’s blood in fragrance is heady and rich and sometimes quite overwhelming in a syrupy sense– but here, tempered with the incendiary floral of black pepper and shadowy black musk, it conjures the honeyed warmth of a mystical lantern glowing in the brooding caverns of Khazad-dûm.
Ozark is so lovely that it makes me strangely weepy; its gentle, refreshing dewdrops, velvety green moss, and deep blue, crystalline waters, it calls to mind a tranquil forest meadow teeming with bluebells and snowdrops and forget-me-nots alongside a cold, clear rushing river. It makes me think of Snow White in her glass coffin in a twilight illustration by Gustaf Tengrenn, and funny enough, it specifically summons two different songs for me In a Glade by Milla Jovovich, but I think it’s a traditional Ukrainian folksong, and Rusalka, Rusalka by the Decemberists, lyrics which lament the folly of falling for the dark-eyed Rusalka, pale as a liminal moon.
Shahwa is an opulent, intoxicating fragrance, a deep, rich, spicy incense that a Red Woman burns (every fantasy story has some version of a Red Woman) while invoking dark gods of pain and pleasure, and Sedona is stories told around a campfire, spirits, and elements of desert florals, Pinyon smoke, and the promise of oncoming rain in the potpourri of petrichor and downdraft of fresh ozone.
Stolas from Fantome is the strangest, most marvelous combination of chocolate and lavender, and this is one of the times I did not reacquaint myself with the notes before testing the scent and coming to that conclusion. So when I double-checked and saw I was right and I did actually smell what I smelled–hot dog, that’s validating. Even after all of this time I feel like I am just constantly wildly speculating. Anyway, this is a musty, dusty chocolate and a powdery lavender, cool aromatic cedar, and something strangely, sweetly waxen. It summons for me something so uncannily vivid and eerily evocative, though not the owl-headed 36th Prince of Hell that inspired the scent. No, this is a dim attic room closed to sunlight for the last century, tangled in pale, filmy cobwebs and frail, milky lace, and crowded with countless wooden shelves upon which are perched dozens of creamy-cheeked, unblinking porcelain dolls.
Stroopwafel from Scent Trunk is a gorgeous gourmand that balances what could potentially be intensely heavy and cloying with something that still feels light and airy, and effortlessly cozy. It feels perfect for what can be a really intense time of year when you’re pulled in every direction, you’re spread too thin, and there’s never enough time. The holidays can be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining, and the last thing you want to do is top all that off with a fragrance that leans too far into any of that mess. Stroopwafel is a scent that feels nostalgic to a point, but in the way that books and dreams are nostalgic, unsullied by what goes on in your real life, and even then, it’s saved by various other elements before it can get its hooks into you and become something maudlin or suffocatingly sentimental. This is not to say I don’t connect with this scent, because I do! But in a way that feels like it’s a treasure just for me. Like being wrapped up in something special that I don’t have to share and in it, creating memories of moments that are solely my own. Nostalgia happening now, rose-tinting the present as I am living it.
It opens as the rich, fragrant gooey chewy treat it’s named for, that buttery bourbon caramel syrup center and brown sugar deliciousness of that sort of not-baked-all-the-way-through waffled cookie sandwiching it. But alongside all that cozy, sweet warmth, there’s a breath of something cool and breezy, this side of piney marjoram, that side of woodsy cedar, that makes itself known. It’s the olfactory equivalent of waking too warm in bed at night and slipping your toes from beneath your quilt to give them a little chill. Or perhaps baking up a storm in a humid kitchen on a wintry day, and cracking the window open to let in a frigid gust of air. A lovely vanilla musk rounds out the fragrance. At this point, and until you can no longer detect it on your skin, it smells like the sweater you spent all day wearing in that cookie kitchen, but with a light dusting of snow after you left it on top of the woodpile overnight.
I only started hearing about Pineward sometime last year, but in reading over their website, I just realized Pineward is another project of the person who now runs Apoteker Tepe, which I thought disappeared a few years ago, but I guess it was sold by the original perfumer and has been purchased by this Pineward person. Considering that my favorite Apoteker Tepe perfume is The Holy Mountain, and it smells like a beardy grandmaster max-level wizard summoning the ultimate ancient mystical dragon lord of the 11th realm or whatever, and now I smell the extremely resinous potency of these Pineward fragrances, this is an acquisition which makes perfect sense. I ordered a sampler set, and for the first one, I think we’ll get into Eldritch. Which is what my middle initial stands for. Just kidding, it’s Elizabeth. Eldritch is comprised of my favorite notes, the sweet loamy decay of oakmoss, opoponax’s oaken honeyed leather, myrrh’s aromatic warmth, crushed balsamic fir needles, and peppery, tannic smoke. It’s so, so, freaking good. And now it’s the signature scent of Elizabeth Eldritch, a powerful tiefling warlock with hair that smolders and crackles in the sun, who has a passion for forbidden lore and whose best friend is a giant fire beetle.
Murkwood from Pineward smells like perfumes I already own several similar bottles of, namely Norne from Slumberhouse, Winter from Dasein, The Nue Company’s Forest Lungs, and Hwyl from Aesop. But I love these notes, and I love how they make me feel and the magical places they take me to. I can never have enough of them and I am always on the hunt for the holy grail of these wintry midnight fairytale forest fragrances. With Murkwood, imagine that grail is less a golden chalice radiating a holy halo of light and more a small wooden cup, roughly carved of fir, a vessel for steaming smoky resinous tea drunk under a full January moon on a night with the snow-covered mosses and the frozen earth under your leather boots make a chilly incense of their own. If one were to stop by the woods in a snowy evening where two roads diverged in a wood, one familiar and one less traveled–Murkwood is stepping off the path entirely into that lovely, deep darkness. As a matter of fact, and this is a very niche reference, but I’m putting it out there anyway and I hope you’ll chime in down in the comments if you know what I am talking about–Murkwood is the olfactory accompaniment to avant-garde video game studio Tale of Tale’s The Path, an atmospheric, immersive horror game based on older, darker versions of Little Red Riding Hood.I see that the Pineward shop is closed right now, but this might just be my holy grail, and I am splurging on a full bottle first thing in 2023.
Yukion’na by Ikiryo Perfumes contains an element that I’m weirdly smitten with, and it’s possible you love it, too, or else you really hate it. There’s probably not any in-between. I am not a smoker, nor have I ever been, but I have an inexplicable fondness for whatever that combination of notes is that smells like a pack of cigarettes in an expensive handbag. It doesn’t smell like smoke, not exactly, and it certainly doesn’t smell like an ashtray. I can detect it in my bottles of Sycomore from Chanel, Chris Collin’s Autumn Rhythm, and My, Myself, and I from Ego Facto. I’d guess some combination of vetiver and leather and tobacco, but not all of these scents have these notes, so I guess I really don’t know. Yukion’na is another one that contains this facet that I’m so fond of, and it conjures for me a wintry yōkai, taking a break from an evening of striking terror into the hearts of lost travelers. She secrets herself behind an icy-glittered pine, the bitter decay of last autumn’s chrysanthemum petals crunch under the snow, and with a sharp, pale fingernail, she peels a small, tangerine, its pitted rind falling in a perfect spiral, shockingly vivid against the bone white landscape. As the moon rises over the frosted forest, a thin pillar of smoke plumes from a cigarette held between her citrus-scent fingertips.
I sampled another fragrance from Ikiryo, but I was really uncomfortable writing about it, so that review is for Midnight Stink Patrons only. I know it’s not fair to mention something that I’m not sharing with you, but for record-keeping sake, I did want to note it in the total of perfume reviews I have written this month.
I’ve wanted a fragrance from Gucci’s Alchemist’s Garden collection for the longest time, but I did not want to pay $350 for a bottle. I lucked out and found a bottle of Love at Your Darkest on Mercari for less than half that, and even luckier still, I actually love it. First, the downside, and the answer to a question that lots of folks asked when I first showed a peek at this a few weeks ago: it’s got basically zero longevity. I spritzed with manic abandon before beginning to write this review, and five sentences in, I basically have to jam my nostrils into my wrist to get the slightest whiff of it. So I would urge you to seek out second-hand bottles of this and buy at a discount. As to the scent, it’s lovely. If you like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood, well, that’s the obvious comparison, but it’s not quite the same; it’s still got that dry, peppery, cedary, woodsy oud backbone, but it’s much less chilly, with a bit of rosy-cheeked delicacy, a sort of fresh, uplifting floral note Replace that dusty tome of MR James ghost stories it’s clutching with a big, soft, pink bouquet of peonies. I’m almost tempted to call it “pretty,” but there’s a discordant jangle of something akin to celery seed, a bitter-earthy-salty facet that makes me hesitate…which is fine with me because I think that strangeness, this off-kilter element makes me like it all the more. I think this would be an interesting fragrance for layering with something more intense, like an oud-forward fragrance oil. Or maybe a rose-oud combination.
I had so much fun discussing DS& Durga’s Sexy Vikingwith the Viking who lives with me. Ývan is Icelandic and lived in Iceland until he was a teenager. His immediate family, his mom, dad, and brothers all now live in the US, as a matter of fact, some of them live a few neighborhoods away, but the rest of his relatives are scattered all over Iceland. He goes back every few years to visit, and I’ve been once, but I certainly don’t have enough familiarity with the country to have a well-formed opinion of a fragrance inspired by aspects of it. Well, I mean, I have an opinion on the fragrance, I can have an opinion on anything, but I guess I mean I can’t really comment overmuch on the sense of place that it’s meant to evoke. Ývan tells me that he gets an overall sense of fresh, crisp, evergreen coniferous pineyness. It recalls for him the summers he spent in the youth work program hauling wood from the forest …which I assumed was some sort of unpaid lumberjack gig, but he laughed and said, what kid is gonna do that kind of work for free?
Anyway, his specific memory involves the moments when he would take a rest and just lie down in a bed of fragrant pine needles and close his eyes while the sun filtered through the canopy of trees. He also said that it brings to mind icy evergreens in the wintertime, during traditional graveside visits on Christmas. He and his mother would visit the cemetery with wreaths and candles for relatives that had passed on, and there was a forested path along which they would slush through freshly fallen snow to reach the graves. Overall he likened it to smelling like an ancient woodland Yule wreath, full of wintry bounty. I would add that what I smell, overwhelmingly, is tart, bracing, cold-weather berries. Something bright red and jeweled and so bitter that even the snowbirds won’t eat it. But also a bit like sour, candied grapefruit peels. As the scent wears, this becomes more like a fruity, malty, softly honeyed amber–but either way, it’s a beautiful note. And overall, I think we both agree, it’s an incredible fragrance, and as it happens–it’s stunningly perfect for the winter solstice today (the day this review was written.)
If I am being very, very honest, I think my chief reason for starting a Patreon was to use it as an excuse to collaborate with some of my favorite artists to create treats for my supporters. It’s not sustainable for me, funds-wise, to commission an artist every month, or even every other month, but I make it happen when I can, and the results have been absolutely enchanting.
I am a huge believer in “tiny arts. ” I know that the purchasing of art is not always an accessible enthusiasm for everyone, and I am not at all saying that artists charge too much, not at all! You deserve to be paid for your time, effort, and talent! But I’m always appreciative when artists make smaller pieces—postcards, pins, small prints, bookmarks, etc., so that folks with limited budgets can treat themselves as well. And I really wanted tiny arts on a perfume theme to be part of my Midnight Stinks Patreon.
For my top-tier Aromatic Angels supporters this month, I’m getting ready to send out these beautiful bookmarks brimming with botanical mystery, designed by the strange and wonderful imagination of Melissa Kojima. And I hope to do so much more of these magical, fantastical creative joinings as we head into the new year!
These lovely little works of art are pictured here with a book utterly luxuriating in shadowy, artful treasures, and which I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about! These chapters of melancholic plants and flowers and gloomy landscapes are my very favorites (aaaaand I have two signed copies left!)
It’s been another busy month, and I’m afraid as much as I would have it differently, sniffing things was not at the top of my list of priorities. Still, I did manage to weasel my nose into a thing or two …much like these curious kittens in the fantastic imagery above by my new favorite artist of adorable animals, Horatio Henry Couldery!
Hortus from Possets is, I believe, a seasonal scent–a spring or summer limited edition. It’s a strange, slithery floral with a rich honeyed neroli and what I can only describe as an oily green musk. It’s lush and weird, like an overheated midnight hallucination, a pinch of shimmering nightmare shadow pulsing at the bottom of a glass stoppered botanical elixir.
Patchouli of the Underworld from Electimuss, to my nose, is a fragrance less evocative of the brutish god of the underworld and his nonconsensual bride than it is a summoning of the bitter heartbreak that’s tangled throughout the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. When I was younger, I was terribly salty on Eurydice’s behalf; all you had to do was not look back, Orpheus! You were so close to having your beloved wife back from the dead! But …no. You did the one thing they specifically tasked you with not doing. You looked. Margaret Atwood wrote in a poem from Eurydice’s point of view, “you could not believe I was more than your echo–” and I think that’s what Patchouli of the Underworld captures so uncannily, the pale grey echo of that very human doubt and disbelief on his part, and the bitter disappointment that she must have felt, and the sorrow experienced by both of them. Now that I’m older, I better understand and certainly have more experience with the crushing gravity of grief, I know that everyone experiences it differently. And grieving people deserve the gift of grace. Orpheus mourns his wife lost twice over, and Eurydice’s sorrow at being drawn back into the darkness of death because of her husband’s momentary lapse of faith must have been immeasurable. That is what this scent captures so well. Forget the brand’s copy about musky sexiness or whatever. That’s not what this is. It’s the lamentations of one whose fleeting hope was stolen away by the person they loved best, and the devastating sense of regret held by the thief. If one were to distill those echoes of melancholy, that antiquity of sadness, and bottle the resulting essence, the results would be an olfactory dirge of smoky mists of pepper and powder and strange inky-leathery nuances, that, over time, becomes a despairing funeral soapy floral.
By Serpentine by Exaltatum opens in a way that feels like a chimeric chypre, full of tentative promise but also a bit weird; it’s a delightfully sour/loamy/ambery chameleon of a fragrance, and I smell something different with every passing moment. The subtle sparkle and sass of pink pepper, a sophisticated bitter citrusy zhuzh of bergamot, the sharp, prickly verdancy of fir, a feathery tickle of violet’s delicate powderiness, and a velvety dreamy balsamic heart of woods and tobacco. It is a little too earthy to call luminous, but it gleams and glows despite its dustier aspects. By Serpentine is an incredibly light and elusive scent, I can’t quite smell it directly on my wrist where I have sprayed it, and yet I smell its halo hovering around me. It’s a thing of beauty, but it is not much for longevity; after half an hour or so, it’s as if waking from an exquisitely poignant dream that I have instantly forgotten the details of.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve got some problems with the legendary Thracian bard, but I will set them aside for a scent such as Curionoir’s Orpheus Incarnate that is trying to capture a hyper-specific moment in his mythology. An olfactory interpretation of an underwater experience, a feeling of weightlessness and calm, visions of turquoise and mauve, and the irresistible lure of the siren’s song. I can’t fathom how they’ve done this–there is really nothing in this fragrance that reads to me as aquatic or oceanic or even anything watery, and yet, if you’ve ever floated on the tide, in the currents, even in the cool waters of your swimming pool, eyes closed to the glare of the sun or the glow of the moon, the echoing murmurs and gurgles of the world drowned out by the waves enclosing the soft pink shell of your ears–this is a perfume that conjures the slowing breaths and hushed heartbeats of that tranquility. I do pick up on the spiced clove of carnation, the cool, earthy oris, the decadence of the tonka and heliotrope, and the almost cloyingly sweet herbaceousness of licorice, and it’s all beautiful and brilliant chorus together…but I have no idea how that translates into the hypnotic sensory lullaby of a solitary midnight swim.
Over on tiktokI reported the results with regard to a commenter’s rando Amazon order dare. Now first, I want to say I didn’t go into the exercise thoughtlessly, so these picks aren’t totally random because I didn’t want to be wasteful with my money or possibly encourage anyone else to do that. I started with a somewhat random search and then branched out from there with some “customers who liked this, bought X, Y, or Z” type things. I ended up with a few brands I had a passing familiarity with, or else fragrance profiles that I was comfortable with from brands I’d never heard of (and probably never would, outside of a weird amazon search.) The results are actually surprising. Out of five perfumes, there is only one that I dislike, and it’s not even that it’s terrible. It’s just boring. (Which is actually worse than terrible, if you ask me!) Here are my findings!
Le Monde Gourmand Pistachio Brûlée with notes of Milky Mousse, Pistachio crumbs, and vanilla beans smells like Brazilian Bum Bum cream’s sandalwood and salted caramel cut with the peachy iris musk of Glossier’s You.
Oud Swisseri Vanilla Attar I actually did not know this was vanilla when I purchased it, but it doesn’t really matter because there’s no vanilla here. This is mostly Tom Ford Oud Wood, a chilly, peppery, coniferous melange of woods but with an extra side order of smoky bandaids. I don’t hate it.
Marem from Caswell Massey is a fragrance originally created for flamboyant silent film star Alla Nazimova, which I’m sure has been reformulated at some point. It’s a really lovely light rose and currant and citrus scent that darkens to a sort of mossy, ambery rose. The rose remains present as it evolves, but the rose you’re initially given isn’t the rose you end up with.
I was expecting Prince from Luxodor to be pretty awful, but honestly, it kinda blew me away. I think this is marketed as a men’s fragrance, but whatever. I’m fairly certain if you are here listening to me talk about perfumes, you don’t believe scents should be gendered, and neither do I. Anyway, this opens with a warm rush of woods and moss and musk, but somehow there’s a cloud of something that either borders on fruity or gourmand, but it’s enigmatically neither. I love this one. And I also love the bottle, which has got a weird amount of heft for being relatively small, and has a gorgeously intricate design.
The Curious Apothecary The Eccentric $25 says it’s a floral gourmand with vanilla brittle and Norwegian woods, but sadly, this is on par with very bland off-brand plug-in air-freshener, something scented with sugar cookie extract, ozone, and industrial plastic. It’s even texturally unpleasant, as it leaves a weird, greasy film on the skin. Ok, I changed my mind, it’s not just boring, it’s objectively terrible. Weirdly, this one is no longer on Amazon. You can find it here if you really want it, but I can assure you that you do not.
Gooped Familiar (black musk, golden amber, cedarwood, catnip, and hay absolute with a shock of carnation, clove, and cinnamon bark) I love this scent from BPAL’s Witches, Sorceresses, and Sorceries in Art History collection for several reasons. One, because it is inspired by an element within The Love Potion created by Evelyn de Morgan, an artist whose lush mythical and allegorical paintings were associated with the later Pre-Raphaelite movement. This was an artist who defied the expectations of her class and gender to become one of the most impressive artists of a generation, whose canvases conveyed a profound sense of feminism, and spirituality, as well as rejection of war and material wealth, rendering them quite relevant today. She’s pretty fab and I love her. Two, because I love seeing derpy and weird animals in art. Not exactly in the same vein, as this cat, but I think Jamie Wyeth’s A Very Small Dog is my very favorite. And three, because this scent immediately brought to mind a certain cinematic feline. Giallo fans amongst you may conjure the image before I write another word, but Gooped Familiar is a fragrance that smells like opulence through the filter of fur. A perfume of spicy florals and musky amber that adorns the wrists of a beautiful and beguiling stranger with a heavily fluffed cream-colored Persian cat in their lap. When you bury your face in that fancy feline’s neck later in the evening, you catch the phantom of the perfume through the heat of the animal’s skin and its vibrating purrs.
Lightning Struck a Flock of Witches (a crack of ozone slicing through blue benzoin, indigo musk, tobacco, and opoponax) this is unexpectedly fruity! But not a fresh, juicy harvest; this is more the fruity aspect of tobacco, sticky dried cherries, the intensely golden bronzed honeyed sweetness of dates, and even a bit of dried pineapple. As it wears, there’s a lovely incense of vanilla and hay, a mingled smokiness of a scented broom whose bristles singed when lingering too close to the hearth, a domestic ritual of ashes and small, satisfying work. It’s a scent that makes me think of this thing (but much lighter on the cinnamon.)
Torta Settevelli (alternating layers of chocolate sponge cake, hazelnut Bavarian cream, chocolate mousse, and hazelnut praline crunch, enrobed in a dark chocolate mirror glaze) This is an impossibly creamy, rich dessert of a fragrance brimming with buttery goodness, a decadent paste of toasted oatmeal, ground nuts, and brown sugar nestled beneath a coffee crème bavaroise with mocha sauce– and blended into a thick, cold, vanilla McFlurry.
Abelard(coconut husk and pearwood with frankincense and carnation petals) Fresh…cold…produce? I’m not a farmer, but I just imagine pulling up the last of a harvest before the frost hits. Or maybe harvesting your cold-weather vegetables, your cabbages, and leafy greens and carrots and such. And then you immediately juice them and drink them down with a scant teaspoon of honey. There’s something so fresh and vegetal-sweet about this, with the tiniest bit of ozone-y plasticity as well, like veggies stored in a plastic bin. Like you carved a disconcertingly jaunty little face into a crooked carrot with a plastic spork.
Heloise (polished limewood, myrrh smoke, and blackened spices) I blame a friend for the immediate association I made when I sniffed this perfume. On Facebook, the other day, I was asking folks for their favorite persimmon recipes, and Angeliska shared a sort of “salad of the underworld”: persimmons and radicchio and pomegranate seeds and a few other goodies, and they suggested serving it with a lime and ginger dressing. A sweet-tart-bitter and lightly spiced foil for all the unctuous richness at a banquet table for the dead. Erewhon salad bar katabasis.
Abelard and Heloise are intended for layering. When they get together, Heloise is like, “Abe, hush your darn beta carotene,” and Abelard is all, “Weezie, shush your dang chicory,” and combined, they mingle in cozy skin musk, vegetal sweetness.
Bobbing for Daddy (apple, diabolical incense with a splash of bay rum, and a hiss of infernal fougere) Before I reminded myself of the notes, I thought to myself…what is this? Apple and …latex? Apple …and chlorinated water? In this blend, nibbles of autumn apples are blended with BPAL’s Daddy scent, and that’s where the “diabolical incense” and the “infernal fougere” come in, and I don’t know what comprises either of those, and I couldn’t even begin to guess. But whatever latex-esque chlorine mingling vibe I am getting initially, it paves the way for a vibrantly grassy, subtly woody, absolute freshest, most hyper-realistic apple perfume I have ever sniffed. So weird and so very cool.
October 32 (leaves fluttering against a thick wool sweater, the cool amber glow of an autumn sunset, dollops of thick cream swirling in black tea) begins as vegetal and brisk, but not a brisk pace, like you’re huffing and puffing to keep up with your spouse’s long legs on an autumn stroll (it’s not a marathon to Mordor, Yvan, for Pete’s sake slow down!) but rather the weather has turned brisk and crisp overnight, there’s an unexpected chill in the air, and you’re taking a PROPER stroll at a REASONABLE pace, YVAN! And you’re moved by that familiar olfactory symphony, that annual concert of sniffs, that gorgeous, romantic decay of fallen leaves on a late October afternoon, and you just look at your person and soften and think, damn, what a wonder it is to spend any moment at all with someone you love. And as your mood softens and hazes, so does this fragrance, like the scent of a comforting candle, something with hints of amber and vanilla bean and sandalwood and cashmere musk, but the flame been lit for an hour or so, and you barely smell it anymore, it’s hovering at the edge of your senses, pleasant and cozy and familiar.
Autumn 1990 (decaying leaves, exhaust fumes, maximum-hold hairspray, and clove cigarettes) It’s a challenge not to experience a perfume like this one through one’s own lens, this “scent of a disaffected deathrock kid skulking around Hollywood with her ne’er-do-well friends…but minus the Boones Farm.” In 1990 I was 14, a freshman in high school, and desperate to shed the bookish, nerdy, teacher’s pet image that had been following me around for as long as I could remember. ..so the first week of school, I snagged myself a heavy-metal boyfriend. I am not sure how this happened, but I suspect it was because I was wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt and an impossibly short, incredibly tight skirt. This was a case of someone probably being way too cool for me, but not in the actual-cool way that I would have been comfortable with, rather the smoking and drinking and badly-behaved-way that teenagers think is cool. Anyway, I ended up skipping a lot of school, receiving a lot of detention, and getting threatened through a third party that I was going to get beat up by some girl I’d never met because she liked my boyfriend and wanted him for herself, I guess? I never got beat up, so I still don’t know what that was about. Autumn 1990 smells like realizing dozens of times over that I was too bright, too clever, and too interesting for this guy, but then worrying that no one would ever ask me out again, and deciding to be okay with having a boyfriend who people thought was cool but with whom I barely had a single thing in common. Spicy incense smoke and caustic hairspray, and pilfered, musky spritzes of my mother’s nice perfume, embedded in a denim jacket that he wouldn’t let me keep, but that he would sometimes let me wear on rainy November days.
Three People Plucking A Mandrake (a tangle of mandrake root and patchouli root bound by champaca resin) According to the 1812 Family Herbal written by John Hill, the fresh root of mandrake is a violent medicine, the object of so many strange superstitions, Satan’s apple, and all that sort of thing. I imagine this book was found in the loamy earth surrounding the vestiges of forest temple ruins, fringed with fern and moss, sticky with whispers. Phantom incense, balsamic, honeyed and heady, clings to the pages, is embedded in the nearly illegible inked letters.
The Unreturning (wisps of spectral white musk and ambergris, blackened leather, yew needles, cypress boughs, gnarled patchouli root, and the memory of frankincense smoke) A cosmic floral inkiness, like the atmospheric glitterings of black salamanders in love, like the glowing lunar movements of shadow people in the mica-flecked dreams of an ancient cave, like a dark song in a holy house at the end of time.
Dead Leaves, Vanilla Bean, Pink Fig, and Brandied Dates This is scent of the Amazoness Quartet, CereCere, PallaPalla, JunJun, and VesVes of the Dead Moon Circus in Sailor Moon Super S, boiled down to their essences and formed in molds into sweet, fruit-jellied, squidgey, flower-shaped candied versions of themselves. I will not be taking any questions at this time.
Lightening Strikes Literature (a lightning storm stirred with beeswax candle smoke, yellowing notebooks, and pools of India ink) oh, I do like this! But I don’t know that I am getting most of the notes. To my nose, it’s the electric peach and ozone-y vanilla that I envision this dream of a dress smells like, with maybe the tiniest, almost indetectable dribble of camphorous ink smeared on the skirts. A note that begins with “Dearest Mother,” and a foggy sense that one has slept too long in the moonlight.
Despondency(pumpkin puree, lavender bud, night-blooming violets, purple sandalwood, and tears) This really does smell like a sad, 20 ft. tall skellington on the day after Halloween. A sort of morose green note bringing down that lofty sandalwood, the chill breath of lavender extinguishing the warmth of a candle illuminating a week-old jack-o-lantern’s rotting grin.Evocative of that bummer feeling of gloomy liminality, that space between where we started and where we’re going, the bitter business of the banished excitement of the thing that just passed and not knowing what to next look forward to. The feeling of emptiness after sustained contact with the ineffable.
The Necromancer (dusty tomes, russet cashmere, green velvet, and leather, frankincense and cinnamon bark, galangal root and fig, rosewater and lilac cologne) This necromancer is an incredibly learned worker of the dark arts who is very secure in their knowledge and would never be up in someone’s DMs being a “well actually” know-it-all and they’ve got better things to do than troll the comments section with their obnoxious devils advocate scenarios. They’ve got quite a subtle presence, you hardly even know they’re in the room, they’re just minding their own beeswax and working their magic in the background. How do they fragrance their person? It’s a faint perfume of mild, milky fig, and heady lilac–but just the barest dab, on skin softened with sweet almond oil and warmed in cashmere cloaks.
Pomegranate Turkish DelightI was a little afraid of this one at first–pomegranate can be so syrupy! And C.S. Lewis tricked us dreadfully re: our formative notions of Turkish delight!– I needn’t have worried. This is a fresh, exuberant pomegranate seed, unencumbered by the burden of expectation and dread associations. This is a juicy, crisp, bright pomegranate seed with complex floral nuances and the tiniest bit of tart sass, a pomegranate that has actually never experienced anything than pure utter, joy. This is a pomegranate seed living its best life. It’s going to become a wholesome, universally beloved TikTok influencer and get signed for a dozen bankable sponsorships and give an inspiring interview on Oprah. (Is an interview on Oprah the gauge of having made it, nowadays? Maybe it will get invited onto Hot Ones, instead.)
Dead Leaves, Pralines and Sheer Vanilla Initially, this is a fragrance focusing intently on the dead leaf aspect of this combination of notes, that element of sweet autumnal decay and sour, earthy fungi farts that the Lab does so astonishingly well. Then, without warning, that aspect of the fragrance disappears completely and is replaced by a rich, rich, buttery vanilla custard.
X-Rayed Candy Bag(the sugary contents of last night’s Trick-or-Treat bucket blasted with atomic particles at your local hospital, producing a stark image of ghostly treats cast in a greeny-white radioactive glow) This is wild, even though I have applied the same amount of this same scent on each wrist, it smells like in one hand I’m clutching a fruity fistful of tropical Jolly Ranchers and Smarties, and on the other side I’ve got a pocketful of creamy butterscotch Werthers, but I’m smelling them collectively through a luminous white musk, green tea, and honeydew haze.
Witches Kitchen (bourbon tobacco absolute, nagarmotha, vetiver, tomato leaf, gunpowder, yarrow stalks, brimstone, vervain, seared leather, and castoreum accord) I am so curious to know how this sits on other people’s skin, and what sort of smells jump out at them from this kitchen sink jumble of kitchen witchery. It’s not listed in the description, but what I experience immediately and intensely is a minty aspect, cool and camphorous and mentholated. I’m not a huge fan of mint, but this isn’t the unpleasantly spearminty toothpaste variety that makes me gaggy, this is more like a cup of fresh, strong emerald-hued mint tea. I keep looking at the notes, though, and thinking, “where is this even coming from?” Maybe a combination of tomato leaf’s distinctive velvety astringency, vervain’s lemony-grassy aspects, and yarrow’s pineiness? Huh! As it wears, the mint loses its manic fervor and almost becomes a bit sleepy, there’s a warm woody aspect that surfaces, like a worn wooden tabletop where upon aromatic and sweet herbs have been processed and dried, tinctures and elixirs have been portioned out, and all of those oils and essences have worked their way into the grain. At this point, what began as a really energetic “wakey wakey!” perfume now urges you to curl up and take a lovely little nap.
Bobbing for Oblivion (Arkansas black apples with inky musk, wood spice, labdanum, patchouli, dark African woods, and saffron) You arrive at the inn early and await your companions–five strangers who are meeting for the first time, anonymously accepting the intriguingly vague but highly lucrative-sounding adventure guild request. You are served a measure of fresh-pressed apple cider in a rustic wooden goblet. There is a bit of dried patchouli leaf and a thread of saffron floating on the golden surface of the drink. Is this evidence of a hexing or perhaps a culinary oversight? You inquire of the barmaid, who only repeats the same question, “what’ll it be, love?” Huh, that’s weird. Almost as weird as when you noted that you only have one arrow in your quiver, and one health potion in your bag. Almost as if…you have to play at some game to earn more of them. And hey, that’s no barmaid, that’s just a random NPC! Wait a second! Did you get sucked into an RPG again? How does this keep happening to you???
Fleece Skeleton Onesie (freshly-washed fleece skeleton onesie and a little bit of smeared eyeliner) when you realize you’re never going to smell as good as whatever fragrance it was that you wore five months ago and which still faintly clings to the stitches of your coziest cardigan, mingled with whatever uniquely intimate magics your skin oils and musks were making on that particular day, this is that smell.
Shadowed Veil(black pumpkin, leather, pomegranate incense, agarwood, and bourbon patchouli) If one were to pack a picnic for venturing into the shadowy otherworld of the Fae (and one definitely should, because it’s best not to eat any of their tricksy offerings) one might pack a loaf of the humble but gorgeously tasty Icelandic rúgbrauð, a dense, dark rye bread made with golden syrup and soured milk and baked or steamed low and slow. It’s delicious with briny salmon or smoky lamb or even just a dollop of cold, creamy butter, but even–especially!– if you don’t dress it up with a single thing, it still smells absolutely amazing. Rich and hearty and sweet, and really, it kinda smells like Christmas, and you don’t even need to visit fairyland, because this is already some really good magic. Cancel your plans (yay for canceled plans!) and make some bread instead. Or don’t do any of that, maybe you agreed to all that stuff, but now the vibe is off, and you just want to be a potato for the evening. You can conjure both the fairy ring and the bread by liberally smearing yourself with Shadowed Veil. Protip: slather and suit up in your coziest fleece onesie, skellington or otherwise. Future you five months from now will thank you.
Pomegranate, Patchouli, Moss, & Fir Needle. More an ambient murmur than a sonic scream of a pomegranate, it’s such a subtle red fruit, I can barely tell it’s red, or that it’s a fruit. I smell it faintly on my wrist, in the warmth of my skin, the throb of my pulse. It’s a heart healing itself, stitching itself back together in the small devotions of gentle fairy tales, favorite flowers, and pictures of baby Snoopy. Being kind to yourself when you get sad, and homesick for a home that doesn’t exist anymore. Allowing yourself to weep for someone else’s grief when you read for the 100th time the howling sorrow of Andrea Cohen’s poem “Refusal to Mourn.”
In lieu of flowers, send him back.
Letting your heart feel all of it, so much of everything. Breaking it every day. Mending it forever. Hoping and dreaming and loving and doing it again and again and again and waking up in the morning with the sunrise and feeling and smelling that tiny throb at your wrist and knowing that it’s the only way any of this works. What else can we do?
Need more ‘Weenies? Have a peep at my ‘Weenie reviews from the autumns of yesteryear, over at Haute Macabre 2021 // 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017 // 2016
And PSSSST! Did you know I have collected all of my BPAL reviews into one spot? I’m about a year behind with adding new stuff to the document, but as it stands, there are over 60 PAGES of my thoughts and rambles on various limited-edition scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab over the years: BPAL REVIEWS BY S. ELIZABETH (PDF download)
Sapincense Figoudative from Woudacieux is, I will freely admit, a perfume I bought solely for the creepy-ass naked winged homunculus fairytale bottle. I did not read a single review, although I have since learned that opinions are divisive. I believe the fragrance is built around elements of oud and fig and spruce, and while I do initially smell something like the crisp, wintry evergreen woody crush of coniferous needles and bittersweet balsamic resins, it conjures for me visions of the oddly aquatic as well. Not like a sunny day on a tropical shore with waves crashing and sand in your hair, though–more like the deep sea twilight zone of the ocean floor, where not a glimmer of sunlight reaches an impossible Atlantean arboretum. Pale trees crusted with coral and kelp and blue algae, home to spider crabs and angler fish, and whose limbs rustle strangely in the currents, whispering maritime murmurs heard only by dreamers and poets. I am not sure what people hate about this scent, other than there are definitely no figs. Maybe they were so sweet and cold and delicious that they were stolen straight from the icebox by one of those poets before they even made it into the perfume.
Liis Studied is a super pretty, vaguely-but-not-obnoxiously gross fruity-floral, amber-esque cozy skin scent, in a similar vein as Glossier’s You and Diptique’s Fleur de Peau. But with its delicately syrupy pear note, I do think it sets itself apart from the other two. It is *almost* a little too sugary at first, and I think that maybe gives it a “bless your big ol’ heart, you sure tried” vibe, but then you sit with her a while and you find out she’s not as dumb or spacey as she looks; she’s just sweet and sensitive and maybe feels everything too much but what’s the point of feeling, otherwise?? And that sappy-bordering-on-cloying sweetness belies a gorgeously warm graceful heart. Do you remember the electric-blue-haired Stormer from the Misfits in the Jem and the Holograms cartoon? I wholeheartedly believe this fragrance is the embodiment of Stormer’s personality.
I have never before purchased something so swiftly as I did when I saw Gurjun Balsam on Scenttrunk’s Instagram account the other day. The caption waxed poetic of the betwix and between of twilight rituals I was just like SAY NO MORE. I just knew that it was going to be something really special, I was sure of it. And it is. With notes of black frankincense and cedar, tonka and balsam, carrot seed and amber musk, you already know it’s going to smell like a witch’s birthday cake glazed with goth tears. It’s running away to bake spiced, honeyed witchly loaves in a wildly enchanted cottage in the middle of a mystic midnight forest, never to be seen again. And I know I’m comparing this to baked goods, but it’s not a gourmand, I don’t mean to imply the a dense crumb, a yeasty rise, or a an airy sponge. It’s sweetness in the form of those rich, sticky resins, bewitching to the point of sinister but you know, that all depends on intent, and the hands of the one crafting the spell, the circles with which you surround yourself in its conjurations. Good witch or bad witch, or PSL decorative gourd season basic bitch, this is absolutely the one scent you have to have this autumn.
Malìa from Nobile 1942 is another one of those fragrances that I saw someone on Instagram mention and I was like yep, gotta have that. Malìa is a twisted and tragic sorcery of sour citrus and bitter woody green herbs, lush, velvet, exquisitely corrupt florals, and a bright, rosy psychedelic pink peppercorn that borders on utterly unhinged. This is a perfume that feels like a subversive folktale told in shrieking ballads via an experimental rock opera.
This is a thing I bought based on someone having recommended it on TikTok a fair number of times. And it was really inexpensive, so the fact that it’s both cheap and wonderful makes it especially nice, I think. Anyway, I am a huge believer and proponent of giving credit where credit is due, so a hat tip and a thank you to LC of nearlynoseblind for every time she mentioned Kumba Made’s Persian Garden fragrance oil. This is a really gentle, intimate scent, and when I say intimate I just mean it feels like a little secret, just between you and yourself and the soft skin on the inside of your wrist, and it’s no one else’s business. Imagine a vial of Egyptian Musk diluted in a bottle of Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo. That’s it. That’s the scent. It is perfectly lovely, and I cannot get enough of it.
LUSH Cardamon Coffee is less a rich steaming beverage than it is a thickly sugared, jellied candy. Almost like a gumdrop, but more substantial, something that you might have to slice out of a pan with a hot, damp knife. Imagine a confection comprised of sticky dates and palm sugar syrup, infused with the warm gingery pineyness of green cardamom pods, roasted coffee beans with notes of cinnamon note, a pinch of saffron, a scant teaspoon of cloves, and a sprinkle of rosewater. Spread thickly on an aromatic olive wood cutting board, shower with an abundance of equal parts smoky muscovado sugar and smooth, earthy Dutched cocoa powder, and slice into tiny nibbles. Except I guess this is actually a fragrance. You can’t eat this.
I cannot possibly sing the praises of Zara’s Bohemian Oud highly enough. I don’t think ten choirs of angels could do it. But let’s just say you took a pillowy bit of the marshmallow fluff those angels were floating around on and stirred it into the lightest, fluffiest chocolate mousse you can imagine, served it in a hand-carved bowl made from some sort of resinous holy wood, and topped it with the incendiary floral of a dusting of gently toasted black pepper, then you might have an inkling what we’re all singing about. Bohemian Oud is a splendid delight made that much more fantastic because at less than $30, it is a freaking steal. Buy a bottle. Buy 12. This stuff is marvelous.
Ok, so, Ariana Grand Cloud… I’ll be honest here, I’m just as surprised as anyone that I really like this scent. There’s not much to say about it. It’s a marshmallow skin scent, a sort of floofy vanilla, a low-key magical-realism, everyday-fabulism, quotidian-fairytale scent…with an elusive hint of sour, canned pears. That’s a weird element that shows up very rarely, but I can’t pretend I didn’t smell it.
Violet Ida from Miller Harris makes me think of something I read recently, that struck me, it’s from The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu: “I am going to tell you a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before.” In Violet Ida we have encountered these elements before: the cool chalky vanilla violet of vintage talcum powder, the smooth floral waxiness, sometimes rosy, sometimes lily, that you associate with the decadent nostalgia of certain decade’s old lipsticks. But then it takes turn– there is carrot seed’s woody-earthy melancholy, the bitter tears from an ancient elemental who has been weeping for a thousand years, and finally twists intriguingly, but dead ends with the barest balsamic sliver of mirrored amber, a resinous veil that’s somehow reflective, too. It broods on all of those other notes and casts them back at the wearer, never allowing further glimpses into what one imagines to be its sweeter, warmer heart. The path just…stops there. I’m thinking maybe it was deceptive to open with that quote; I’m quite certain that there has just got to be more to this story, and maybe I just haven’t unlocked the last leg of the journey yet.
Do I need another smoky vanilla? I don’t know, man. Hypnotizing Fire from The Harmonist is stunning but I hate the way the copy reads and how most reviewers talk about it, all sexy this, seductive that. You people need some cold showers. Or maybe I’m a cranky old hag with a cooter full of cobwebs. I’d liken this perfume more to the silken veils of an ancient seer, gauzy with prophecy and incense fumes, softly draped over their faces and shoulders as they channel the words of the gods from the depths of trance as black pepper pods are tossed into the smoldering embers of sacred, spiced woods. But no matter how fabulous and fantastical the revelations from this ritual might seem to be…at the end of the day, when you lift the veil, it’s just a smoky vanilla scent (even if it does have a really cool name) and I have a handful of scents similar to this sitting on my shelf, already paid for…and this one goes for $250 for a bottle. Le sigh.
Zara’s Unusual Flower is herbal green sharp and peppery acrid, like the med-mist spray of Bactine, the chemical weirdness of insect repellent, and the mineral UV filters of sunblock, along with both chlorinated pool water and salty ocean air. It sounds awful, but you know what, I love it. It reminds me of childhood summer vacations with my family. The sharpness dissipates and it becomes a combination of a sort of cottony crisp linen spray and the classic late- 90’s early aughts omnipresent ubiquity of a certain scent: that sparkling grapefruit, watery cucumber, sweet honeydew melon spa water fragrance that I’m sure some amongst us recall vividly. I do, because it’s the fragrance I associate with my best friend’s townhome, where I housesat for a week, while they were visiting Japan. It’s a fragrance that makes me think of Neon Genesis Evangelion marathons, Soma FM’s Groove Salad downtempo electronica radio station, and oversized cargo pants that unzipped at the knee to better allow for flailing to bootlegged Japanese copies of Dance Dance Revolution. This scent is not “good” (just my opinion, man) but this is an instance where the heart tells the brain “you know nothing,” because friends, I love this perfume.
Trying these samples from Poesie has been a really surprising experience, somewhat because I’d forgotten the notes and the descriptions, and they didn’t seem to square up with my preconceived notions of what they should be…but also because these are just really fun, exciting fragrances and when I did go back and read the inspirations, I was like, oh that’s right, it was some of my dreamy favorites themes and motifs in mythic and gothic literature! Anyway, here are my brief thoughts on a few. Whisper Your Bitter Thingsis a shifting cipher of a scent, a very pretty but unnervingly inconstant beauty. At first sniff I thought it was honeyed tobacco, and then it became an earthy spiced coffee and shortly thereafter a sort of peppery apricot floral. Library Ghost is following the soft susurrus and whispering trail of a floating cotton bedsheet through the stacks, only to corner it in the supernatural romance section, whip the linens from its levitating form and see that the spirit was three sugary bundles of cotton candy heaped on top of one another and a pocket full of adorable cereal marshmallows. Full Moon (at the Temple) is a fragrant burst of citrus and the dank, mineralic tang of limestone and gypsum, cave rock and and the cool, pungent mist of late night rain, like feeding a soggy baby fruit bat a little piece of tangerine.
Honey and the Moon from Tokyo Milk is if Aquolina’s Pink Sugar had a twin, not quite identical, but there are moments where they could swap places and you might not be able to tell the difference. Honey and the Moon has that same spun sugar DNA but it’s the gilded, bronzed slightly burnt brown sugar dusty golden hour version of it. Another difference is that when Pink Sugar dries, it becomes the bark of the cotton candy tree, but with Honey and the Moon, as it wears, there’s something a bit metallic about it, like those candied strands of cottony sugar floss are threaded with copper, like maybe there’s nanobots in it, or little fairies wearing steampunk goggles. And I don’t mention that as a detractor, I love every aspect of this scent and it’s definitely going on the shelf of things that my inner child is going to reach for quite often.
I have a fragrance sampler set from Fat & the Moon. I did have some preconceived notions of what these organic and plant-based scents might be like, and what fits into what I know of this brand’s vibe and aesthetic: hand-crafted, herbal body care for natural, inclusive sustainable healing that aligns with the earth and so on. I have tried a few of their bath soaks and I love their lip paints which I like to wear in an aggressive gash at the center of my mouth like I have been nomming on a blood popsicle, but I’m not so sure about the fragrances.I tried all four of them: Artemis at Dawn, Green Man, Persephone Emerges, and Wolf Shepherd. As you might suspect from how they are made and the ingredients they include, they are all very…earthy. Some in a musty, mossy sort of way, and some more in a fresh mud pie sort of way. I really wanted to love Artemis with its notes of Patchouli, Black Pepper & Rose Geranium, but its Persephone’s Cedar, Coriander & Jasmine that is ultimately the easiest to wear and whose clay and dirt eventually lightens to a dusty floral. I did pay my own money for them, and I’m glad I tried them but they’re really not for me…however if you’re a fan of very natural-smelling botanical fragrances you can grab a set of all four generously on their site for something like $46.
L’Artisan Abyssae is exciting for me in that I do believe I have found another rose that I can tolerate. The camphoraceous aspect of the eucalyptus reigns in that effusive, extravagant jamminess of the rose and lends a quality that while not antiseptic, feels in some way discreet and brooks no frivolity, while the cashmeran enshrouds it in shadowy, softly balsamic woods. It’s a scent that is still and quiet but a tick shy of calming…there is something vaguely unsettling about it. I keep coming back to the name, “Abyssae,” which to me, sounds like it could be another mystically terrifying witch-mother from Dario Argento’s giallo thrillers. There was Suspiriorum, Terenbrarum, and Lacrymarum. Abyssae adds to the ancient triumvirate but instead of joining in on their esoteric and attempt to rule the world, Abyssae’s thing is just sitting around in arcane solitude while her sisters wreak havoc. She’s reserved, she’s dignified, she’s not interested in an invite to your stupid gender reveal party. She’s a rose thinking serious things in silence.
Imaginary Authors Sundrunk I don’t want to call this a novelty scent because that’s a little dismissive, but it is definitely the sort of thing that one might wear to evoke a very particular nostalgia. In my case, it’s being locked outside in the afternoon heat of childhood summer vacations; my mother would hand us each a sticky, effervescent orange push-up pop, and send us outside to, ostensibly, get us out of our hair. The door wasn’t actually locked behind us, but it felt like to seek entry back indoors would be risking the sort of fury and frustration on the part of our mother, that as children, we feared immeasurably. So there’s that syrupy, citrusy, fizziness, the scent of fresh-cut grass and chopped-up jasmine from the lawnmower, a sort of soapy green honeysuckle note, and a bit of a chemical-plasticky element, that you will recognize if you have ever had your damp, brassy, freshly Sun-Ined hair, drying in the sunshine on a sweltering Florida day. I don’t know that this scent is very wearable, but I am glad that I got a chance to sniff it.
Unum’s Ennui Noir is a fragrance that I have been calling Ennui LOL for the past few years and I couldn’t remember why, until I reacquainted myself with a bit of the PR copy I had found at the time, which must be some sort of weird translation. Lots of talk of the void and mediocrity and boredom and emptiness, interwoven with word salad ingredient highlights, hyperactive patchouli, psychotic vanilla, and so on. Here is my favorite snippet: “boredom as well opening you, throws yourself in another dimension, distant from every trivial and certain contamination. There is no certainty in the dark boredom, as it is experienced on You, becoming part, crust, bark of your deep hidden woods. A lonely flute in the fog of yourself.” I shared that with a friend when I first read it, and they got an Etsy seller to embroider a charming little piece of art with that phrase, and it remains one of my most cherished possessions. As to the scent, it literally makes my lip curl in disgust, it’s a bit of a gourmand, and I don’t see where the “noir” aspect comes in. It’s a perfume that affects me on a visceral, gaggy level and it’s hard to pinpoint why, so here’s a word salad of my own to sum it up: woody mildew, softly decaying fig, unsettlingly, cloyingly sweet floral musk, musty-powdery to the point of chalky, putrefying heliotrope pudding.