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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

Carpets; tapestries: RAJA MUSK and BLACK ROSE by ILLUMINUM (2011)








When I lived in North London I used to go to a very eccentric cafe called The Raj. Up some flights of the stairs in the Highgate Village was what seemed to be some kind of dilapidated, walled-in gypsy rose caravan, where Sunday breakfasts could be had at a snail’s pace as the dust motes of the years travelled slowly in the light, and cosy Londoners nursed their hangovers with the full English Monty and their thick newspaper supplements.  Albums proceeding on the  record player in the corner gave a pleasing aspect of homely, teenage bedroom reality: the stylus would come to a halt amid the sound of chaos from the kitchen, the crackle on the loping grooves of the vinyl only adding to the atmosphere. You let the  click.    click  fade into the general ambience of coffee mugs and trays being carried back and forth into the kitchen where a hodgepodge of spices (cumin and sage especially) was thrown into the often bizarre, haphazard creations.









It was a really lovely place, and I have no idea if it still exists. But I imagine it would : the place was a real local favourite, despite or because of the thick-carpeted scruffiness and the sense that the proprietors were making everything up as they went along. Those egg-cracked red velvet curtains that you imagine had never been washed.


Illuminum’s Black Rose is like the rich, textured, olfactory version of this place. A London-exotic, hippyish tapestry: of lentils, mystics, and dusty old pot pourri; a thick, woody rose perfume combining rose otto, Taïf roses and Moroccan rose essence with a big dash of cumin, saffron, and black pepper. Dark, dry Mysore sandalwood (the perfume’s heart), and Somali golden frankincense form the foundation on which this rests, all amounting to a generous and androgynous scent that I find very appealing. It is the kind of perfume you wish your university professor had worn, sat benevolently in her study in a thick-knit cardigan; or some neighbour whose door you sometimes knock on to borrow a bag of herb tea, to sit and chat with over Vashti Bunyan.



What is so good about the scent is the lack of jarring edges. All has been blended as if in an Arab alembic; fused together, tarry and benevolent as a unguent. As time goes by it just gets better, deeper, has even more aura….







The only complaint I have about Black Rose is that it should, instead, have been called Raja Musk. Somehow this would have been the perfect name for the scent, given it even more mystique.  The actual Raja Musk is an inconsequential take on the modern laundry type of fragrance, in the manner of CK Be, and has nothing to do with what you might expect from such a scent (I was yearning for something diffident, Indian). Instead, shiny, synthetic top notes (” pear blossom “, ” red currant” ) and muguetty, Zanussi musks uneasily mingle in a soapsud formula that is very expensive, and ‘clean’, but which wouldn’t be out of place in a Gap store.




No: in my mind, Raja Musk is my fusty, good-hearted, old-friend-in-the-making Black Rose.







Shall we meet each other there next Sunday?




October 21, 2012 · 7:24 pm

















A perfume of self-hatred.

For those in any way S+M inclined, or have a gimp, leather, or torture fetish, and have spent a lifetime searching for a corresponding scent, look no further.

This perfume is tar, this is rubber; your face pounded into asphalt and the apparatus waiting; for a night of complex, breathless and painful autoasphyxiation.

I myself wouldn’t touch this in any circumstances, but as a concept, from bottle to scent, and as a just about wearable anti-perfume, it is the best of its type.

Just spray it on the PVC and wait.


Notes: town gas, vapours of bitumen, opoponax, grilled cigarettes, pyrogenics.





But you took it too far. Those exhaust fumes, the car oil, the vehicle grease for lube…

And then the rafters. Even you knew there were limits. And so your quest for a very particular kind of gratification ended in tears. Especially for your bewildered relatives, who found you hanging, smeared in diesel; naked, and pitiful.


Notes: vetiver acetate, plastic florals, car seat leather, kerosene.





And so they went to work. Through your drawers, your pockets, your bedroom, as they carved up your loot. And from your daytime clothes, your presentable office work wear, were salvaged some more respectable garments. Which went to the dry cleaners and were treated duly with death-smelling chemicals to de-accentuate the memory of the same.


But you weren’t there for any of this, so it really doesn’t matter.


Probably the foulest perfume I have ever smelled: one that could literally make me vomit.


A product that dries out the oesophagus: shudders your innards.



Notes: ozone, nail polish, bay leaf, metallic incense, dissolvent vapours.


(not one for brides)


April 2, 2012 · 9:09 pm