It has been raining in the city, and you are standing on the grey wet steps of a cathedral, where the chilling, ghostly incense from the years hangs in the rafters. A cold whiff of death, both religious and nihilistic; fungal in the dark reaches of its damp earthiness, Catholic in its liturgical implications.

You shiver…




L’Humeur A Rien, an obscure, long-gone, once formed part of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s ‘Sautes d’Humeur’, a limited edition set of five fragrances in a red satin-lined box; and it was my first ever introduction to an incense perfume. I remember standing in the King’s Road boutique in West London when it came out; transfixed and bewildered. So along with the satanically green-eyed snake of D’humour Jalouse (one of the most interesting green creations ever made), I decided on the spot that I had to own this original selection of scents that, though highly stimulating to my imagination as curios, were clearly, to me at least, unwearable.



But as it turned out, the ‘Mood Swings’ collection, according to the lady who sold me the perfumes, was in fact intended, just as I had intuited, as a collection of scents to ‘share with yourself’. To place a drop or two on the top of your hand, and then drift, the ‘nothing’ or ‘spiritual’ void of D’Humeur A Rien a watery evocation of the sinister and sacramental: a portal – brief – to another realm that would either comfort you in the material world or compound your yearnings for the hereafter. Never did it occur to me to put this on to go out anywhere as it is far too disheartening, even for a party at Halloween. Also, the visions of rainwater on stone floors of the beginning notes – the most fascinating part of the perfume – soon shifted to a smudgy, unpleasant, bad feeling that you felt you had to wash off. But that was the idea: a momentary glimpse of another life, or death…









At the time, I thought that this oddity was a true original as I had never come across anything else quite like it. Several years later, however, the idea of wearing incense started to catch on, and perfumes such as the seminal Incense Series by Comme Des Garcons (2002) brought about a distinctive change of sensibilities in which these arid, evocative, often sanctified substances smelled fashionable (especially when combined with more conventional woody notes, spices, new synthetics, and ambers); an impactful, wry new kind of antidote to the sweet and the floral. At first, to some extent, there was almost a novelty value – a ‘look at me I smell like a church’ aspect that had an aspect of the humorously blasphemous (smelling exactly like the high mass at Avignon might strike the religious as somewhat disrespectful); but in time, the scents have simply come to smell of the times – a bit edgy and knowing; often contemplative, and peculiarly erotic.




Black Amber is an elaborate frankincense composition by Swedish house Agonist, and comes with the requisite features we expect from an exclusive niche brand. Concept – the brooding melancholia of Bergman, Garbo and other despairing Scandinavian artistes;  the sculpture as perfume bottle, and the scent, crafted to place the wearer far beyond the plebeian reaches of the hoipolloi.









And Black Amber, in the scheme of the mainstream, is certainly no usual scent.  In niche terms, though, it strikes me as just another grey dirge of miseria. While it intrigues, somewhat, at first, with its strange, seaweed like-saltiness (from an unusual addition of red algae); its essence of nargarmotha, an Indian herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, and notes of tobacco blossom, artemisia and labdanum  to bolster the note of churchy olibanum, the plum-murk dinge of its centre has a bilgey corporality to it that feels like the mortar holding up the temple – an argillaceous wetness that takes some time, in the crypt, to solidify. This verging-on-unpleasant clay-feel comes from an uneasy underlayering sediment of ambergris, vanilla and sandalwood that takes away from the purity and sanctity of the frankincense (an essential oil I adore), while never sweetening or become soft enough, indeed ambered, to ever satisfy. It smells, to be honest, of ghoulish plasticine. Strangely, the perfume is billed as a walk in the forest, but to me, the frankincense, combined with other incense notes in the heart, can only be signifiers of church rites.



I know that Black Amber does have its disciples, so if you are aching for a sophisticated ‘anti-perfume’ , or an incense scent that contains no oudh (agarwood), you might want to seek this out. It is enigmatic, and of obviously high quality source materials. To me, though, these trendy black cloaks of ‘gloom’ can feel a little forced.




















I’m clicking your fingers

for a gothic twilight

That actually existed

just in your head





Your fingernails painted black

or blood red I forget





And your fake leather volumes jabbering on hell

Manifest decadence was what you hoped to exhale






Your eyes tried so hard to glitter

A star-snuffing black





And you opened your legs

And so opened your heart





And let in the badness you claimed as your friend






And nonetheless I still write this Gothic love song






A sign to myself and the memory of my past












And a way to shut out your face










October 24, 2012 · 1:15 am


  1. brie

    Never thought much about incense as perfume until I met SSS Incense Pure….the most meditative fragrance I have ever put to my wrist…could not stop sniffing…

    And it is interesting to hear that we share adoration for yet another e.o.- frankincense! If truth be told I make a “cheap” rendition of “incense” – a few drops of frankincense and one drop of patchouli mixed with a carrier oil in a tiny vial…this is all I need to calm my sometimes frazzled nerves…

    Great post N! Thanks for re-blogging and sharing these great stories with us!

    • No one at all read it the first time, and I was suddenly in the mood for something gothic and unfloral.

      Frankincense is so ethereal; I don’t need these pretentious incense perfumes…

  2. I love this song from the Curent 93… Perfume, good music and you have a perfect day!

  3. Lilybelle

    That is some very fine writing, Black Narcissus.

  4. Debbie Lauri

    Chillingly fascinating. Captures your mind….then your olfactory senses. Awesome words to pull us along the journey with you Neil.

  5. Dearest Ginza
    The Dandy’s often in the mood for incense.
    And yes, you describe perfectly the heretical feeling that overtook me too when I first came across the precise Roman Catholic note contained, for me, in Comme De Garcons’ Man 2.
    What interests me here are the unwearable clack and clod wet stone notes.
    Cllay is an aroma I’ve been hunting out for a while, I smelt it on a mouillette proffered by a very helpful assistant in a perfume obesessed pharmacists once. Sadly the shop has gone and all memory of what the scent was too…
    I think maybe Jacques Bogart, but then I think too much!
    I may go away now and light a cone, which, coincidentalyy comes from a shop on the King’s Road where they sell the best in London.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  6. The words should, of course, have been ‘clay’ and ‘coincidentally’. The computer and I aren’t getting on at all well this week!

  7. Loved Humeur de Rien, never could think of wearing it, yet loved it. I also loved CdG Avignon, but again, it smelt better in theory than on me.
    So many Black Ambre scents out there, yet none really conjur up for me what Black Ambre should smell like, maybe I am not even sure…but when I eventually smell one worthy of the moniker I will know it
    Fabulous reviews as always. I love when you reblog, you always post ones I have not read yet.

  8. I don’t know Humeur de Rien, but I have all the of the CDG Incense Series. There are many days of the year for me that I crave an incense scent, and although I have tried several more from different houses (and pricing), CDG always satisfies my cravings. However, there is one that I do not wear but smell hear and there, and that is Avignon. All the others I wear during the cooler and colder months.

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