Outremer’s Vanille is a profoundly vanilla-y vanilla. It’s nearly a straight-up, high-quality, really lovely vanilla extract, with a rich, balsamic, warmth, and some pleasant plastic butteriness. A little lump of vanilla waffle cone incense stored in an empty tub of vanilla frosting. There aren’t any weird twists or turns, it’s a fairly linear scent from to finish. I think this is the first thing I would recommend to a vanilla fiend who doesn’t want any funny business with their vanilla fragrance.

So, Synthetic Jungle: Imagine a rain-soaked stroll, grey streets, grey sidewalks, grey, colorless people. A flash from the corner of your eye, a vibrant raincoat with an unexpected print featuring the lush, layered exuberance and verdant cacophony of the imaginary jungles of artist Henri Rousseau, an artist who had never left France to see real jungles. His inspiration came from Paris’ botanical gardens, zoological galleries, and from geographic illustrations in prints and books. This is dizzying descent of a scent, an aromatic Stendahl Syndrome, conjured by someone who fully knows this jungle sprung forth from the depths of dreams. It is a clashing, chaotic chypre and white floral canvas, aswirl with sharp, woody oakmoss and the crisp springiness of lily of the valley and the intense, acrid greenery of galbanum. Wrapped in a plastic rain slicker and rubber wellies.

Stella from Tocca is a fragrance that I have probably received about a million samples of over the years and which I have been strangely resistant to trying. I was convinced that it was going to be a really boring, conventional sort of scent, though I’m not really sure what I was basing that on. Probably because the majority of these samples came from Sephora, and on the interesting-o-meter, most perfumes from there score pretty low for me. Stella…is not necessarily bland or boring, but I will say it’s not my thing. It’s very pretty, in a starter-scent way. I don’t mean for young people, necessarily, but I don’t not mean them, either. Maybe just for someone who doesn’t yet know what they like. A sparkling fruity-floral with notes of milky peach Calpico and blood orange San Pellegrino and watery freesia that dries down to the scent of what I recall teenage girls spritzing in the bathroom between classes to freshen up, a sort of citrusy-powdery-soapiness. Before it reaches that point though, it’s got this soft, shimmering watercolor quality that reminds me of certain pieces of contemporary fantasy art: flowers and fairies and young maidens and probably a unicorn just outside the canvas, yet to be coaxed forth by an innocent and guileless hand.

Gris Charnel from BDK Parfums is a scent that I find confusing and disappointing. Mostly, I think I am disappointed in myself, for not having read the perfumer’s inspiration for the fragrance. Some dribble about two tourists whose glances cross paths, they dance until dawn and then slip away for an intimate encounter. Yawn. I got bored and checked out several times just now while trying to sum that up. Now if they slid through a portal into an Edward Allan Poe story while they were making out in a dark alley, then I could forgive myself for getting thrillingly suckered in by the copy (and to a lesser extent, the darkly poetic name, which I feel somehow tricked me into thinking it was something that it was not.) It must have been the notes I was excited for then, which mention black tea, fig, and cardamom essence. That sounds really lovely. But I’ve tried this several times and I don’t sense any of that loveliness. Instead, it’s a bit like a low-end tea sampler that includes selections with various unspecified “fruit flavors” but in reality, no matter which one you brew up, all they taste like hot Kool-Aid water. And there’s a weird, acrid smoky element that hovers unpleasantly, like charcoal heated air…so imagine smoking hot Kool-Aid water in your hookah. Even if I pretend an olde-timey goth poet was smoking that hookah, it’s still a bit of a dud.

Chris Rusak’s Beast Mode is a scent that I don’t hear a lot about from the hoi polloi, but I’ve heard enough from niche bloggers that I consider perfumista royalty to pique my interest. Exactly what I heard about it, I couldn’t tell you. I guess the name itself stuck with me. The site describes this fragrance as a “minimalist weirdo. A creature of deception. Perfume nerdery” and while I don’t actually know anything about this perfumer, I will say that this nondescription captured my imagination and which evolved into a little crush. The sort of obsession that you develop on someone you glimpsed on the subway reading a dog-eared copy of a book by your favorite author, in this case, let’s say creepy Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, and then you had a series of unsettling dreams about them, so you wrote an ode to this stranger in the local alternative paper’s missed connections section. And like Japan’s most successful and lauded horror author, Rusak has injected an extraordinarily potent amount of weirdness into this scent. Beginning with a mundane peek into the spice cabinet, you are subjected to a surreal descent into madness featuring fenugreek’s uncanny curried maple syrup-ness, a dry, itchy tingle of salty musk, an enigmatic spike of aniseed, and an oily conflagration of black pepper. I can’t make heads or tails of this scent, and as a matter of fact, I like to imagine it as a many-headed, rattle-tailed beast, much like its very name. It’s truly one of the most eccentric and singular fragrances I have ever sniffed and I stand in admiration of its sublime strangeness.

I have had so many people ask me about Thin Wild Mercury over the past year that I was starting to think I had been living under a rock or something and somehow some long-standing beloved cult favorite had passed me by. I don’t like to be the last to hear about something good! But here I am and here we are. So I understand this is a line of fragrances telling aromatic fables of the iconic spirit of Los Angeles. I know very little of Los Angeles, other than I traveled there once, and during that time I visited an incredibly bizarre and disturbing cat sanctuary in the middle of the desert. I also had a nervous breakdown in an Air BnB. Believe it or not, those two situations were entirely unrelated. So, Chateau, 1970. A bastion of old Hollywood and notorious celebrity hideaway, this olfactory ode to the Chateau Marmont mentions wilting roses, crisp linens, and vintage wood furniture and I do think all of that comes across. It’s an incredibly languid scent, like Lana del Rey in front of her vanity singing in a sleepy, drunken drawl into her mirror about how her moon is in Leo and her Cancer is sun, which if you ask me is a very weird way to phrase that thought. There’s dreamy indolence to this scent, moments frozen in time, captured in a Polaroid picture, dust motes floating forever above a lone rose in a chipped vase just beyond the mirror’s cloudy reflection, never settling on the bloom. A powdery musk of memory of a night that never really ended, a faded photograph that belongs to no one anymore, wrapped in tattered linen and quietly slipped under a shabby fringe of carpet in a shadowed corner of an old bungalow. 

I have some more brief impressions of Thin Wild Mercury’s offerings. And strangely, they’re all food metaphors and comparisons. Classic Taurus vibes, here, always! Whisky, 1969 is a heady combination of woody, musky oakmoss and a smoky sort of umami. Like …spiced loamy lichen wildness and leather and soy sauce that’s also a little nutty and boozy. It’s weird but it works. Laurel Canyon, 1966 with its zesty orange rind and warm, peppery clove and honeyed, almost chewy amber note is on the opposite end of the spectrum, a bit like a spice cake with a thin, sugared citrus glaze. Zuma, 1975 is a salty, grassy, sandy gremolata with bitter citrus and woody herbs served atop some fresh-caught marine delight just outside the sniffing range of this scent. I’m not saying it’s fishy, or seafoody or even …foody, but there’s definitely a sense of an almost palatable salinity

I’ve received so many samples of Andrea Maack’s Coven from Luckyscent over the years and for some reason I can’t recall any of my previous thoughts on it….which I interpret to mean that it never really impressed me as especially good or bad. This time, however, it’s really left an impression. With notes of soil and moss, Coven is meant to embody a shadowy woodland walk, and I think it’s clear the results are pretty divisive. One reviewer notes, and I am paraphrasing here, that it smells like dumpster juice. My own partner thinks it smells like an exploded car battery. I can’t deny that there is a sickly sweet rot at play here, like the dark shadows of Dol Guldur slowly encroaching the Greenwood forest as the feral wizard Radagast the Brown watches in horror while the vegetation blackens and decays before his eyes and many of his beloved animal friends are sick or dying. As it dries, the whiskey becomes apparent, and a strange, sour cumin note emerges to combine with the mossiness and the sense of black mold and mildew and it conjures a sort of hungover Witch-King of Angmar, badly in need of a bath.

Tom Ford’s Ombre Leather is a fragrance I both weirdly like and I don’t like and I can’t make up my mind. The new car leather scent is front and center, like you literally just slid into the seat of some posh, luxury vehicle to take it for a test drive. The smarmy salesperson slithered into the passenger seat next to you and they are wearing that screechy-sweet jasmine scent from Tom Ford that you really despise and at first you want to roll down the windows but you can’t figure out how they work so you just give up. But somehow the syrupy musk of the jasmine alongside the smooth, slightly bright, slightly animalic leather is a striking combination. But the two notes never really meld, they sit separately for the duration of the scent’s journey, and much like that trip twice around the car lot with the stranger that you’re not going to buy the car from anyway, it’s ultimately an awkward ride.

Mizensir’s Celebes Wood is a scent I love, but I think I love it more for someone else. This is a frou-frou boozy woodland party of a fragrance. A dozen rowdy princesses gather in the forest at midnight, all glitter and glamour and flowing hair and dazzling tiaras and ballgown pockets stuffed with cakes and confections and clutching jeweled flasks of sweet, strong liqueurs that cost half a kingdom to procure. There’s gossip and gifts and drinking and dancing and sweet kisses and secrets under the moonlight. And these princesses aren’t sleepwalking or under a spell, they’re alert and more alive than they’ve ever been, women with agency and autonomy and a vision for the future that will shake the very foundations of their world, because it doesn’t involve pleasing parents or marrying princes or making themselves or their dreams small or hiding their hearts’ truest songs. So…yeah. That kind of party. This is a sumptuous ambery scent, opening with a sweet, spiced swirling of almost effervescent sparks, like someone tossed cinnamon and cardamom on a flame, and when the embers die there is a deep, rich heart of tonka bean and resinous labdanum and something a lot like patchouli, but creamier, and less earthy. It’s beautiful and on the right person it could be devastating, but somehow it’s not me.

Dragonfly from Zoologist is a scent that apparently I’ve been sampling for so long I’m left with only fumes. But I’m not sure that I need a full bottle. I don’t own many scents like this…which is not to say it’s incredibly unique, because I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a sort of gentle, watery floral musk with cherry blossom and peony and sweet, powdery heliotrope. While it’s nice, it’s quite pretty even, I’d definitely put it in the aquatic category… and I don’t love aquatics. Even one as wearable as this. I guess that’s what I mean when I say that I don’t have many like it. I’m sure there are lots of things that smell similar, I just couldn’t tell you what they are because I don’t wear or typically even sample them! I’ve read that dragonflies thrive in fresh, clean water and I think there is something of that purity that comes across in this scent. Purity is such a fraught term and so I hesitate to even use it, but that is the first word that comes to mind, and honestly, now that I have said that, you know who I can imagine wearing this scent? The brave and ridiculously sweet Laura Lee from Yellowjackets. This scent is perfect for this character. [Note in including the link just now, I realize that they have reformulated the fragrance. This review is for the original formulation.]

Maya from Tocca is a scent that I bought on a whim a few months ago when I was grabbing a few travel-sized scents from Sephora. Tocca scents generally don’t work for me and this one is no exception. They are all, or at least the one I’ve tried, these ridiculous fruity-florals that remind me of somehow of Edible Arrangement fruit bouquets. I don’t care for fruity florals but I don’t think this is a bad version of one. With top notes of black currant, violet leaf, and some underlying jasmine and rose, it’s a bombastic burst of jammy, patchouli-cloaked fruit, and musky florals, and it was driving me nuts because it reminds me so much of a scent that I used to wear in my late teens, when I first started taking classes at community college. The reason I remember this is because our cat peed on my bookbag and I tried to cover it up with this particular fragrance and 15 minutes into class I realized with a sinking heart that my solution was not working, so I gathered up my stuff and left and was too embarrassed to ever return. That scent was Tribu by Bennetton. I just checked the scent notes and it also lists black currant and violet leaf, jasmine, and rose. It does not of course list cat pee from one Leroy Parnell, our Siamese cat at the time, but in my memory Tribu and screechy, skanky cat piss are inextricably linked. Maya does not share that aspect with it. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fruity-floral. It’s fine. A touch of cat pee might make it more interesting, though.

Megamare from Orto Parisi is an absolute Atlantean kaiju of a fragrance. A massive, mysterious sea beast, a preternatural creature of divine power, wrapped in radioactive seaweed, rises from the unfathomable depths of an otherworldly ocean trench to surface in the middle of a typhoon. Tsunamis wreak havoc around the globe, saltwater instantaneously soaks every surface, a strange cloud of mossy musk forms, algae blooms, visibility drops to zero within seconds. At the vortex of this calamity is MEGAMARE, a gentle creature cursed with a hulking stature and an immensely briny, brackish odor that can be detected from other planets, other dimensions. It takes in the citizens of the world in a sweeping glance of its kaleidoscopic cyclopean eye and thinks “fucking hell, these humans are garbage” and disappears into the abyss never to be seen again. But its unearthly DNA changed the very essence of the seawater, and from every place a drop fell that day, a strange aromatic blossom appeared. And so history will never forget the vast flowering of judgment, the day of Megamare.

Baccarat Rouge 540 from Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a fragrance that no one ever talks about and that certainly no one’s ever heard of. That’s sarcasm. But I have to pretend that this is a thing that has flown under the radar, or else I’m going to have a hard time reviewing it. I mean how do you talk about a scent like this without saying the same thing a zillion other people have already said? (See that’s a thing about me. You can like my writing. You can love it. You can absolutely despise it. All of those are fine with me. What is *not* fine is when someone says that I sound exactly like someone else. That’s what makes me mad and sad and actually hate myself a little.) What *is* fine, sometimes, is smelling like someone else. Maybe a zillion other someones. This is one of those times. Baccarat Rouge 540 is not a heavy scent, it’s not especially complex or nuanced, and there’s not much in the way of projection. It’s not a masterpiece. It’s not especially unique. Sometimes you don’t want those things, though. You don’t want a weird, challenging, avant-garde artsy scent. Sometimes you want to put on a soft, cozy sweater that has a vague hint of a perfume that you wore last week still clinging to the fuzzed-out neckline. A caramelized spun sugar candy floss half-remembered dream of a scent, with a creamy-clean core of barely detectable cedar and a halo of glimmering jasmine fairy dust. That’s Baccarat Rouge 540. It’s hardly there and there’s not a lot to it. It’s a thoroughly enchanting, and outrageously expensive skin scent, But… it’s good. And sometimes that is good enough.

Zoologist’s Chipmunk is a chipmunk who is a CEO of some mega-corporation that’s actually a front for some shadowy organization that has been around for centuries and whose fanatical leadership is trying to open up a portal to another world and bring forth a demon god whose emergence on earth will usher in the end times. By which I mean it’s a cool, woodsy forest breeze, and something that smells earthy and dry, like the metallic tang of cold rocks, and of the nocturnal furry musk of creatures you wouldn’t want to meet in the dark. There’s nothing warm or sweet or cute or chipmunk-cheeked about it. It smells…ominous, somehow.  These are oddly hollow woods, cursed groves, silent and strange, wherein a twitchy-tailed, beady-eyed, rodent cyborg chipmunk is conducting a mandatory board meeting of imminent doom.

October’s Table from Hexennacht is a collaboration with Alyssa Thorne photography and inspired by a piece of moody floral photography of the same name. From the notes listed, what I immediately pick out is the smoked vanilla and caramelized marshmallow, autumnal spices, kindling branches in the form of a sort of apple-y wood, and soft, honied beeswax, which they note is vegan. This is every bit as lovely and cozy and warm as you would expect, there’s the most interesting and delightful aspect of it that I can’t match to any note, but there’s an underlying something that skews it slightly off. Sitting near a chilled window late in the evening as freezing rain ices the streets outside. The lamp casts a soft glow, you’re wrapped in shawls and blankets, you’ve got a steaming mug of something strong and sweet, and a treasured collection of ghost stories in your lap. You’re ensconced in the comfort and safety of your lovely home…and yet. The wind moans softly through the trees, rattling the branches, skittering their skeletal wooden bones across the roof, like clacking dominoes of the dead. The lights buzz and flicker intermittently, and each time they dim, the shadows in the room lengthen and darken and grow. You realize with a feverish swoon and a start that you’ve been holding your breath and your heart is pounding furiously. In between each throb and thrumming beat is where the haunting riddle of this scent lies.

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