Unholy Smoke (& a giveaway!)

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT VII

- a review of Mermade Magickal Arts‘ ‘Mephisto’.

How far we perfumaniacs have come from that mystical, mythical matter we love so much. We dream in it, we bathe in it, we enrich ourselves, our chosen perfumers and our surroundings with it, we save for it, splurge for it, lust for it. Those magical elixirs and ethereal blends of heaven and earth, of balsam and resin, flower and herb satisfy our souls as few things else, and yet – in this lightning-tempo age and this instant gratification time, we forget what it once was, have somehow lost what it once did, have blithely obliterated all notions of its very form and function – to reconnect us, to realign us, to summon and to appease.

Perfume. The very name means “through smoke”, essences and absolutes distilled over fire in an alembic (which also gives its name to this blog), or, as perfume indeed was used once, as lumps of costly incense, burned in an offering to appease and to invoke the gods, and in so doing, to evoke – as well as please – our highest, finest, most divine selves.

Or.

To invoke an altogether different sort of beast.

I’m no stranger to alternate forms of perfume. I’ve burned Armenian papers and joss sticks, I’ve had potpourri in jam jars all over my homes at different times, pressed roses in old books, made my own lavender water. I’ve indulged my senses in a wantonly extravagant scented candle that’s still scenting my bedroom nearly a year later. And with the exception of potpourri, all of these demand fire to release their potent odors, that primeval element that is both beginning and end, metaphor and transformation. Just as fire begins with a spark, so does life itself, or another kind of life, when you glance across a glass of mulled wine in a dark midnight café at a stranger who sits so close beside you…

Here we have another kind of perfume, a very primeval kind – because here is a Devil’s scent as an incense, and it is by far the most extraordinary kind of incense I’ve ever had the pleasure to be inspired by.

It began at the behest of Monica Skye Miller, the Perfume Pharmer, when she suggested that Katlyn join our devilish endeavor, and I could only agree. I had of course heard of Katlyn’s alchymistical blends, had perused her website, and dreamed, that some day – or some night, I, too, might have a chance to breathe in their wonders. A few emails, some days and the Devilscent Project perfume brief later, I was completely unprepared by what came back in the mail.

What would I be as a human animal? I’m the Devil, so they’ve said. Neither animal nor human, but a combination of both, just enough of each to be dangerous, and that’s the whole idea. Danger. I want her to be able to know exactly who I am by her sense of smell alone. So. The perfume. Labdanum is a note she loves, labdanum is animal and sexy and slightly goatish.” – From the Devil’s Brief, the Devilscent Project

To which the saucy Katlyn retorted in her accompanying letter:

Did I just read ‘Goatish Labdanum’, something dark, sexy and extremely untamed? Ah, yes, I have just the thing…Within my cabinettes of curiosity there just happens to be something just waiting for this project. Labdanum from Crete complete with a few goat hairs. I knew there must be a place for this strange fragrant black stuff…The Devilscent Project. The most wonderful black frankincense from Oman. And then dark patchouli, tears of myrrh, contraband aloeswood…Incense is always needed to conjure up a spirit. And this has the scent of the crossroads at midnight and a little hair of the goat. Best burned on an electrical burner. Or a bit of brimstone if you have some handy. Use sparingly. May cause unnatural urges. Save this one for a dark night when you need a bit of company.

As I finished the quote above, I had reached 666 words. For a moment, that gave me pause for thought. You’d pause too, for this puts ‘incendiary’ into ‘incense’. I’m typing out these words as it burns in its dish above sea salt and charcoal, not in the dead, dark hours of night, but in the long twilight of midsummer when it never does get dark, yet I tell you…it may as well be that rainy, windblown Friday night in early November when I had my first harebrained idea that led all the way to…this.

That goatish labdanum (and yes, it does contain a little hair of the goat!) with its sweet, heady, animal air is all the more potent for the luscious patchouli and that touch of aloeswood that we know as the note du jour called oud. This is a living, breathing Dark Art. That chilly, dangerous alliance of myrrh and frankincense is never far behind it, exhaling its own numinous breath of otherworldly beneath that heated, heavy heartbeat. It doesn’t smell like goat, but it certainly smells sacred, sacred in a way most of us have forgotten. It smells like sin, if I believed in such a thing. Not so much as an act of moral transgression, but as the kind of act you would never tell in polite company, the kind of sin that must be kept secret, or else lose its delicious, subversive edge. The kind of sin that makes you glow in the dark. And the morning after, too.

If you think you know what incense is and what it does to your mood, if you’ve never thought about the tricks ambient scent can play on your suggestible mind – or even if you have – you’re in for a surprise. Just as the hapless protagonist of Quantum Demonology was whenever she caught a whiff of the Devil from afar, that otherworldly, bitter, dark that made her blood run cold in her veins and her heart beat faster.

Mephisto made my heart beat faster and ignited my imagination as all the Devilscents have, ignited it as few perfumes ever have before. In this dark, Monday night hour, I see it smoldering, and in those formless wisps of smoke, I can squint my eyes and almost see him hovering above.

“No need for that,” say a voice I know too well. “I’m right here. Did you know that in the ancient world, it was said the gods were helpless to resist the lure of burning incense? When it’s as good, as rich, as decadent and dangerous as this, I might as well give up the ghost completely. I can’t resist.” He leaned closer and whispered in my ear. “Just like you, baby.” He gave me that grin. “Just like you.”

“So what do you think?” I asked.

He picked up the letter from Katlyn, printed on parchment-like paper with cursive writing, and read the words with an even bigger grin. “I think…” he said after a while, “that Katlyn nailed it. Trust me, if the batcave has a scent, it would be this one. This is a lot of what I am. He shook his head and laughed. “Cretan goat hairs included! And I do believe it’s time I came back.”

“Where have you been?” I wouldn’t let him know he’d been missed. Hell wasn’t that cold yet.

Another long, fraught pause. Another long, level, red-brown stare. “Removing obstacles. Rearranging events, putting other things in motion, doing…what I have to do.” Dev tipped his head back and took a long, deep breath. The incense was so potent, it scented the entire apartment.

“And what would that be?” I sat back on my chair, looked him right in the eye.

“Telling you…that we made a deal, you and I. I take care of my own, I always will. And while I’ve been gone, you’ve somehow lost track of what you need to do. You need to believe. You need to have faith. I can make it happen for you. In fact, it already is happening. Since you forgot, and the incense reminded me, I’m here to tell you again.”

“Dev…I hate to say this, but you’re a fictional construct. I cooked you up, remember?”

“No, you didn’t. You conjured me out from the shadows. So I came back to remind you of what you forgot.” He leaned closer, much closer. I could feel his hot breath on my neck, feel him blowing in my ear.

“Forgot what?” I was confused. Or else it was that hot air and those lips by my ear, that subtle shiver down my spine, that dangerous, sexy, evocative scent that filled the room.

“Be careful what you wish for, baby. You will get it!” Light as a feather, his lips brushed my ear and he breathed down my neck.

When I turned my head to look, he was gone, and only the unholy, dangerous smoke of Katlyn’s incense remained.

Find ‘Mephisto’ at Mermade Magickal Arts here.

Disclosure: Samples were provided by Mermade Magickal Arts. For which I thank Katlyn Breene and Monica Miller most profoundly and sincerely.

I have a giveaway! Two lucky readers will receive a sample set of ‘Mephisto’. Leave a comment by June 30th at midnight CET to be eligible! Open to readers worldwide. The winners will be determined by random.org on July 1st.

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One Smooth Devil

-  a review of Damien Bàsh ‘Lucifer no. 3’

Once upon a time, I was too poor to buy perfume. I knew nothing of samples, decants or Fabulous Fragrant Facilitators, and although I did know a bit about perfume, I didn’t know enough not to commit one Cardinal Sin – otherwise known as The Ultimate Exercise in Perfumista Masochism.

To my everlasting damnation, what I did own was a catalog from the renowned Manhattan niche perfume boutique called Aedes de Venustas. This particular fragrant-by-proxy perfume porn fuelled my fantasy life for years. I dreamed of those opulent images, imagined in my head as grandiosely as any Jean Baptiste Grenouille the fleeting treasures in those beautifully photographed bottles with their purple-prose descriptions.

If temptation lurked anywhere, it would have been within the pages of that catalog. Somehow, it seemed to fit that I encountered the name of a line of perfumes that stopped me cold in my superheated fragrant phantasmagorias…

Damien Bàsh Lucifer, numbers 1 to 4.

Not even my polymorphously perverse imagination could have cooked that one up! This Hammer fan girl was floored…floored that these things happen only in real life and floored such evocatively named perfumes existed.

Damien Bàsh is a photographer and artist so hyper-refrigerated cool, I had never heard of him. But just as with the other contents of that catalog, all I could do was dream of the day I’d waft something diabolically fahbulous, dahling, and when asked, I could look up my short and snooty nose and say in my best Dietrich alto voice… “Lucifer…number three.”

There is an abiding admonition in metaphysics.

“Be careful what you wish for. You will get it!

These not so many years later, and my, have I evolved! Thanks to my perilous prose, I now have acute indecision every morning over What To Wear Today. I can even say with utter conviction and a bad Dietrich imitation, that I am wearing…Lucifer no. 3.

A name like that carries certain associations. Since those days of the dog-eared Aedes catalog, I even managed to cook up my own version of that fabled and much-maligned creature…

The Devil. Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, the Adversary, the Questioner…although I doubt he would be someone John Milton would recognize. My hapless protagonist of my 21st-century Faustian tale, Quantum Demonology, is undone by not a few things that fateful night she makes her deal with the Devil, but more than anything else, it is his scent that unglues her.

I can close my eyes right now and evoke that perfume, almost breathe it in as I type…and it is not, I’m happy to say, Damien Bàsh’s ‘Lucifer no 3’, since if it were, I could never wear it. For one, it would be hard to think one coherent thought, never mind write them it down.

What ‘Lucifer no. 3’ does have in common with that fictional ideal is incense. And is there any better time of year for one of my all-time favorite perfume notes than November, that month of deepening dark and the cold stone and steel breath of winter down my spine?

It kicks off green and bright, bergamot and orange and that pine-lemon kick of elemi bouncing in on a moonbeam, but right behind it are intimations of darker, deeper things, shadowy whispers woven into that bright green opening light that breathe a calming, centering puff of myrrh and frankincense, sandalwood and labdanum, with fir resin accentuating and continuing the woody-lemon green elemi. As it evolves throughout its lifespan of about five fleeting hours, it becomes a seamless, smoldering mélange of myrrh, sandalwood and glorious frankincense, but not, I think, just any frankincense.

The scent of frankincense can vary wildly according to variety and location. The same species of Boswellia in separate locales can produce completely different facets of frankincense. Somali frankincense smells nothing at all like the (justly!) famous Hojari frankincense of Oman, and again, nowhere similar to Indian frankincense, which is earthier and spicier.

I can’t say for certain what variety was used for Lucifer no. 3, but take it from me…it’s very, very good. It shares certain characteristics with the three samples of Omani frankincense I have in my Devilscent kit and with the drop dead devastating incense used by Amouage, so I’m going to guess it’s Omani.

This Devil is a very smooth, suave, classy Devil. He doesn’t shout his presence, doesn’t bother with any obvious associations of evil or even gender. This wears equally well on both men and women, and equally appealing. The sandalwood is silky smooth, the labdanum with its goatish touch is just that – a touch. And meanwhile, the myrrh and frankincense dance such a beguiling, subtle dance on my skin, and perhaps that’s the biggest surprise of all – this is an understated perfume, which does not make it forgettable.

It shares something of the same elegance as another favorite incense of mine, Andy Tauer’s ‘Incense Extrème’, but isn’t quite so austere or bitter.

This is a Devil I love to wear. I came to find out that it hasn’t received much love in the blogosphere or even many reviews, possibly for being guilty by association – c’mon…Lucifer! – and then not delivering that hoped for Ultimate Bottled Malevolence. (I think Etat Libre bashed him to it!)

But the Devil has been infinitely maligned as the perpetual human scapegoat, the Fall Guy for all our human failings, and if ‘Lucifer no 3’ is an olfactory interpretation of that archetype, then maybe there’s much more to the Devil than most of us think – if we think of him at all!

My own conjuration stalks my dreams and my notebooks and even several hundred pages of my prose. I can imagine he would have good things to say about ‘Lucifer no. 3’, but only if I wore it. It is, after all, one helluva perfume!

As for what he wears…you’ll just have to guess a little longer!

Notes for Damien Bàsh ‘Lucifer no. 3’: Orange, bergamot, elemi, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, labdanum, fir resin.

According to Damien Bàsh’s own notes from his website, ‘Lucifer no. 3’ is an all-natural perfume. It is becoming increasingly hard to find, but Sündhaft in Munich carries the entire line.

For a review of ‘Lucifer no. 3’ you can’t afford to miss, I refer you to the glorious Vanessa of Bonkers About Perfume, who was also diabolical enough to send some perfumed perdition to me…

Image: The Devil, by Niki de Saint Phalle, from the Tarot Garden in Garavicchio, Italy.

A Scent of Sin


- a review of Guerlain’s ‘Spiritueuse Double Vanille’

Behold – the vanilla orchid, originator to one of the most beloved and abused essences in perfumery. Beloved when it’s rendered well, adding sweetness and spice and all things nice, despised when rendered as sugary cupcake overkill. Vanilla is an important part of one of the most famous bases in perfumery – the Guerlinade. Shalimar would not be Shalimar without that opulent, rich vanilla base.

You would never know that this little, unassuming flower is one of the most important in the world. You would never know that this dainty little orchid could evoke hints and intimations…of sinful, sweet and animal.

Few people realize just how animal, how nearly feral vanilla can be. Although I’ve liked and even loved vanilla as a component in many, many perfumes including Shalimar, I’ve never taken the trouble to actively seek them out, simply because…there are too many horror stories out there, and I’ve stuck my unsuspecting nose in quite a few.

Vanilla in general has a terrible reputation. Vanilla has become a byword for anything boring, bland, middle-of-the-road. It is a safe fragrance, a safe flavor, and ‘safe’ is not an adjective I like to keep in my vocabulary. When used to death in cheap scented candles, bath products, celebufumes or room sprays, I say it deserves every description of horror I can think of. The phrase ‘olfactory torture’ comes to mind. This is not vanilla, this is not what vanilla can and should be.

If any nose on Planet Earth knows vanilla, knows what it is capable of, knows its depth, its richness, its animality, surely it would be Jean Paul Guerlain. More than any other perfume house, Guerlain has elevated vanilla in many versions to superstardom. Always with that highly refined sensibility that (once upon a time at least and rather lacking lately) defines the venerable name ‘Guerlain’.

When I received a generous sample of Spiritueuse Double Vanille (SDV for short) from the equally beneficent Olfactoria, I was happy, but not excited. Happy – it’s a Guerlain. Like old loves and old friends, I’ll always give Guerlain a second, third, and twenty-fifth chance, even if they did release that trainwreck known as ‘Insolence’. Excited – well, there were other things in that Austrian package that got my motor running, so I left it at that.

Until I opened that sample of SDV. Oh. Oh, my. Oh, my gosh. Oh, baby! Oh! (Here follow a few epithets I try to keep out of a perfume blog, if not in real life!)

It is…boozy, whoozy, dizzyingly alcoholic without being potable – and that’s a good thing! I’m quite hazardous enough, thank you. I’d go so far as to say – just as was Jean Paul Guerlain’s intention, this is the moment you split open a vanilla bean and an entire alternate universe grabs you by the nose as a reminder that dessert isn’t always something you eat!

This is carnal vanilla, as sinful as that third chocolate truffle and as sexy as that silk slip that slides down the shoulder just…enough. There are pink peppercorns, bergamot, Bulgarian rose and ylang ylang in there, say the notes, but what I get is boozy, whoozy, faint-making killah vanilla, the kind of vanilla that is no relation whatsoever to anything sold as ‘vanilla’, or indeed anything defined as ‘safe’, ‘bland’ or boring.

SDV is anything but safe. Somewhere among all that overt nuclear vanilla impact floats a hint of cedar, a whisper of incense, a mere suggestion of benzoin, weaving in and out and through that vanilla vixen that murmurs…’come closer, if you dare’, and then buries her teeth in your neck. And oh, that vanilla, so sweet, so lethal, so carnal, oh…

This is horizontal Hitchcock territory. Boozy. Here I go again, and I swear, I was sober when I began this review. Sweet, animal and borderline feral, gourmand – in other words, everything yours truly should absolutely hate in a perfume, and yet…Yes! Yes! Yes! Puleeeze…Just put me out of my misery and buy me a bottle already!

Since I first began writing about perfume on this blog, the occasions I’ve been sideswiped by a perfume have not happened all that often. This is one of those. Just to commit the ultimate in sacrilege, I’ve tried layering this with Atelier’s Grand Neroli on a whim, and my, it was glorious. Gilding an already perfect lily, I tried it with Serge Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger. The jasmine gives up the ghost (who would have thought it?), and the tuberose comes all the way out to play in the sun with the vixen, and meanwhile, I can’t hold one coherent thought that won’t get me arrested should I ever attempt to act it out in public.

Spiritueuse Double Vanille is…intoxicating, in all the best senses of the word. It lasts and lasts and lasts and lasts. It is sweet but never cloying and utterly delicious. It is sinfully wicked in all the best Guerlain ways, dark, devastating.

I can’t imagine what the burgeoning perfumophile Scorpio would say to this one should I wear it on a latte date, and he usually has plenty to say about whatever I wear. But I can imagine what he might do. It’s that kind of vanilla, and that kind of perfume, and that kind of dangerous.

There are cheaper ways to get this kind of thrill. Buy four of the best vanilla beans you can afford, and chop them into smaller pieces. Throw them in a food processor with one cup of plain white sugar and blend until the sugar turns gray-brown and the vanilla beans are pulverized. Pour this concoction into a tightly sealed container and leave for at least a week. Use this instead of vanilla extract or bought vanilla sugar, and you will know everything there is to know about something that isn’t safe, bland or boring. Vanilla will never be the same again.

Not even in a perfume.

Notes: Pink peppercorn, bergamot, incense, cedar, Bulgarian rose, ylang ylang, vanilla, benzoin.

Not Mad, Not Bad but Dangerous to Know!


– a review of Byredo’s ‘Baudelaire’

Picture an eighteen-year-old punk, circa 1981, small, tattered, all in black and wearing way more eye makeup than any two eyelids should ever have to bear. She was curled up on a mattress on the floor with her nose stuck in a book, which was indeed the case quite a bit of the time, when she wasn’t arguing political theory (more books!), throwing toilets out of second story windows (true story), or planning what would happen once the revolution came, and that was due, any day now…

One of her main partners in subversion was a 6’4” stringbean of a guy, a dead ringer for Henry Miller at 23 and just as avid and voracious for life and all it included. He kept throwing books at her, and she kept reading them – Emma Goldman, Henry Miller, Piotr Kropotkin, Marx, Hemingway and Kerouac, Lessing and Jung and Horney and Laing, Huxley and Capek…and on one long February night, sandwiched somewhere between Kant and Kierkegaard, a certain long-deceased Frenchman of dubious reputation. (Always the best kind!)

The well-worn cover of this fifth-hand book read “The Flowers of Evil”, by Charles Baudelaire. Just as his poetry had done so much to revolutionize poetry, poetic subject matter and even literature itself on both sides of the English Channel and the Atlantic, this one byword for bohemian decadence and dissolution completely and utterly rearranged this poor eighteen-year-old punk’s mental furniture…for life.

Byredo, a niche house based in Stockholm, isn’t a line I’ve tried before. In choosing to create a perfume and give it the name of my other favorite poet on Planet Earth, all I can say is – they have a lot to live up to! I look at that sample bottle and wonder what’s inside it. Can I expect laudanum phantasms and opium dreams on Montparnasse divans, as Jeanne Duval laughs mocking in the background? Could this be Baudelaire’s incendiary poetry in bottled form, slithering out of the bottle and sliding into my nose to perform unspeakable acts of depravity on my Jacobsen’s organ?

I’ll answer those questions first: Not quite, not really and…I wish!

First of all, Baudelaire is…very, very smooth. Very peppery and even bitter-green intriguing on the outset, before it intrigues even more with a smoky, dark brown, bitter incense that settles and stays and never strays. The incense gets in league with patchouli and black amber somewhere along the way – here we enter a color located precisely between brown and black – and gets only a bit sweeter. It’s slightly animalic and yet not well-behaved, either. There’s a tinge of naughty in there, but naughty is not subversive, and subversive is not quite so smooth or so alluring.

Sexy. Borderline dangerous. Definitely a masculine scent, because I don’t have nearly enough cojones to wear this with any degree of conviction. It is very intelligent, with that exceptional incense note that is miles away from any other incense I’ve tried, and yet there’s something in there that reminds me of that famous line said of Lord Byron: Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Baudelaire is neither mad nor the slightest bit bad. It hasn’t received a lot of love from the perfumosphere, and that baffles me a bit, because it is intriguing, intelligent, and decadent in a good way. Opulent might be a better word to describe it, but I have to say it – this is a walk on the dark side, and if you can’t walk that walk…you’d better stay away.

I found a good home for the rest of my sample – and a little goes a long, long way. I gave it to the Scorpio. It suits him perfectly. He’s exceedingly smart, funny, very sexy and indeed…dangerous to know! ;)

For another take on ‘Baudelaire’, Brian of I Smell Therefore I Am had this to say about it.

Notes according to Fragrantica:
Top notes: Juniper, Pepper, Caraway
Middle notes: Incense, Hyacinth
Base notes: Papyrus, Patchouli, Black Amber

Image of Charles Baudelaire: pixfr.eu