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I’m titling this a “mini-review” even though it is in fact a full dozen scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Winter 2020 collection being written about here. I’m just trying to manage expectations!
Fir Needle and Smoke In the past year or so, my partner and I have switched gears about our future plans and where we see ourselves living. Though we both grew up in Florida and have family here, we’ve known for a long time that the land of palm trees and 80 degree Christmases and Florida Man having sex with an alligator behind the Bob Evan’s dumpster was not the right place for us, and our dream was eventually to make our way to the Pacific Northwest. Quarantine and lockdown, however, had us rethinking just how close we really wanted to be to a lot of people, and coupled with the fact that it’s terribly expensive out there (and all of those fires really worry us), we’ve gradually shifted our thinking back to the East Coast, somewhere we can get some land and grow some vegetables and have orchards and goats and chickens and tap our own maple trees and maybe keep bees, and and and….
Ok, there’s a lot of stuff we want to do, and some of it might be a little (or very) ridiculous, but these fancies have had us frequently peeking at Zillow in our moments of spare time. There is a stunningly perfect place out in the middle of nowhere in Vermont and an aerial drone photo captures this property nestled in the midst of a lush grove of wildly vivid autumnal foliage. This, of course, stirs and stokes the embers of my imagination, and the bracing evergreen, musky oakmoss, and subtle ashy haze of Fir Needle and Smoke is the scent permeating the landscape if I were to step out onto that chilled wooden back porch after supper on a December evening and gaze out into the encroaching woodland shadows as the stars slowly begin to appear in the darkening sky, one by one by one.
Midnight Mass I think I maybe attended one midnight mass in my life, with my high school boyfriend who, though his family was Catholic, I’m fairly certain he wasn’t the slightest bit spiritual or religious or had much in the way of any belief in anything at all except for low-rider trucks that blared bowel-quaking bass. This brings me to a very important question, aside from why was I even with this guy or why two teenagers willingly partook of the drama and symbolism of beliefs and tradition that they hadn’t the slightest interest in. But rather this: when we conjure our expectations and wishes for what something might look like for us, we say that we “envision” this, that, or the other thing. What’s the word we use when what we mean to say is that this is what we imagined a thing might smell like? We …”ensniffen” it? That sounds dumb, but in lieu of a better word, I always ensniffen Midnight Mass to smell like this story. Dry and dusty and skeletal, like incense made from the bones of a creepy, grasping congregation. I’ve sniffed BPAL’s Midnight Mass fragrance once or twice before, I’m sure I have had more than once bottle in my possession over the last few years. And I’m quite certain it smells nothing at all like this that legendary Christmas Mass of the Dead.
Instead it brings me back to that surreal evening, decades ago. The unsettling, musky crush of warm bodies, the feverish agitation of gathering with people you don’t know to talk to a god you don’t even believe in, the warmth and glow of candlelight made aloof and indifferent in a disconcertingly unfamiliar setting. The shadowy mumblings of prayers you can’t follow, slowly coalescing with the smell of incense smoke that you don’t recognize, until the scent and the sound becomes one thing only, the swirling, rushing phantom of everything you don’t know about everything in that moment. But also: being fogged and fuzzed and befuddled in that unassailable teenage cocoon of a heady-something-or other that feels a lot like love when you’re young–and maybe it is–but it’s also a bunch of hormones and recognizing that you’re feeling new and strange and wonderful things for another person for the first time in your life. And no matter how out of your element you feel in the midst of this bizarre situation with all its kneeling and chanting and scores of seemingly devout strangers but who knows, really …you’re holding the hand of someone you’re going to drink wine coolers and make out with a whole bunch, afterward.
Cucidati (lemon-frosted cookie filled with Calimyrna figs, dried dates, orange peel, dark rum, and almond paste) I’ve never tasted this Sicilian holiday treat, but my first impression of the fragrance inspired by it is that of baked dough, tender and buttery, enjoyed outdoors. Or at least maybe in front of an open window. There’s a cool, airy-almost-ozone quality alongside the fresh-out-of-the-oven warmth that’s really interesting to sit with and toggle between for a moment– but only a moment, mind you because it swiftly becomes a deeply caramelized jammy sugar scent. Fruits with all the fruitiness rendered out and what’s left is a candied, deeply complex, toasted syrup confection. What’s funny about this one is that never in my life has a fragrance changed so rapidly from one completely different thing to another, and it was really something to experience.
Narcissus and Snowflakes Animalic and wolfen, but with a shy floral sweetness buried far beneath acrid, feral pelts, and bitter icy loneliness and snapping, snarling, gnashing dagger teeth that will bite you before it gives you the slightest chance to hurt it first. A lonely, fearsome, wolf-hearted girl. This following reference may not resonate with many of you, but if you’ve watched the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire, this scent is the character Cameron Howe through and through– and it makes me think of this tender quote, the words of a dear friend as they part ways for what could be a long time, in the last episode of the show.
“You got a lot of love in you. More than anybody I ever met. It’s bursting out of you. You’re taking the world in these big gulps and you can’t help but to let yourself get drowned in it. Overwhelms you, makes you feel like you’re gonna explode at any minute. They don’t see it. I do. It’s a burden you carry.”
Marshmallow Snow While the official scent notes are described as “soft poofs of chilled marshmallow”, I don’t detect a ploofy confection, so much as a glittering trap of twinkling fairy lights, glowing with an icy, effervescent-translating-as-iridescent light. Shards of rosy-pink sugar crystal glistening in the snow, a lure for human children out past their bedtime in the dark.
Cranberries and Popcorn Tart and salty? It’s tough to be more specific. I am definitely not a sweet and salty person. Like, chocolate-covered potato chips? Thanks, I hate it! Get it out of my face! Not my thing at all. Salty and tangy, though? Or salty and sour? Or salty and tart? That I can get on board with. This scent doesn’t have a whiff of sweetness to it, which seems like a super impressive feat to accomplish. It smells of hot, savory, saltiness, but somehow not super foody, not like a beef stew or anything, and a juicy, though not overly fruity, momentarily mouth-puckery bitter piquancy.
The Icebergs (peach musk, fir needle, immortelle, white moss, turquoise musk, juniper sap, apricot rind, fleur de sel, white rose, misty orris root, and white amber) A very chilly tropical scent, which initially calls to mind something like shaved ice drizzled with pineapple or lychee syrup, but it’s not as cloying as that may sound, and it’s also a very translucent feeling scent. Like falling asleep in a snowdrift and dreaming of balmy climes and salt on your skin and platters of succulent fruit by the sea, but the sleeper is seen through the gleaming glass of a snowglobe or the soft, crystalline wobbles of a jellied aspic. This dries as a thickly pulpy, then gently powdered peach.
Klosterruine Im Winter Mit Blick Auf Heisterbach (Crumbling marble under a blanket of snow, echoes of incense smoke, and crushed frankincense tears) The pearly, soft dawn through a frosted winter windowpane (when you’re not brutally hungover, that is–I had to test this bottle twice) energized with the promise of pristine beginnings, fresh starts, blank slates. A clean, lemony floral that lingers a but a hasty half-second before clouds occlude the sun and shadows begin to slip over the windowsill and slink across the floor. The scent becomes subtle incense and gloomy musk and dust motes floating in the last rays of the sun sinking on the horizon.
Gingerbread Invisible Man (champagne-soaked gingerbread, candied ginger, lemon, and white sugar) I’m always happy when my sniffer picks up on various notes before I read the corresponding scent’s description. When I first sampled Gingerbread Man, I thought, huh, now this is a gingerbread person… peeped through the damp bubbles of a vinyl showercurtain…while they’re exfoliating with some sort of fizzy, spiced-citrus emulsifying sugar scrub! Ok, so I wasn’t totally spot on, but I was close, right? Also, please don’t peep at showering gingerpeople, unawares. Everyone deserves privacy whilst bathing.
Partridges in the Snow (roasted chestnut, oak bark, sawdust, balsam, and warm brown musk against a backdrop of white sandalwood, orris butter, and juniper) Rich, rounded, balsamic toasted sugar and a woody vanilla oakishness. It’s simply a beautiful scent, and I feel in every BPAL collection there is one, that while not always my favorite, it’s sure to be a crowd favorite. This is that one. Note: I originally typo’ed that as a “crow favorite.”
Ghost Milk (goat’s milk, marshmallow, vanilla cashmere, honey dust, and white chocolate) I try not to read or listen to other people’s reviews of these scents before I attempt formulating my own thoughts. I don’t want to be overly influenced to like or dislike something, or to go into the experience with any sort of expectations other than my own thoughts. I did, however, read that Labbie and marketing guru Tom Blunt mentioned over in the BPAL Facebook that Ghost Milk smells of Rice Krispie treat soap (I am paraphrasing, but it was something like that) (and not your fault, Tom, I should have minded my own business!) and so I’m afraid I did go into sampling it with some preconceived notions. As it happens though, one person’s saponified crispy rice and marshmallow snack is another’s cream-filled, tube-shaped, golden sponge snake cake–so either way, if you coveted and longed for the sweet treats and sugary desserts that all the other kids but you had in their lunchboxes, I think you are going to enjoy this subtly sweet, creamy vanilla scent.
Yule Cat (Malevolent musk, a drop of infernal civet, vetiver, club moss, birch, goosefoot, and rowan) It’s difficult to believe that I haven’t reviewed Yule Cat before, but I just checked and apparently I have not! The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat, has long been a traditional Christmas-time enforcer of good behavior in Iceland. My sweetie is Icelandic and tells me that he was always grateful and relieved to see what he calls a “soft package” under the tree, because receiving items of clothing like socks or sweaters meant that you were a good kid and the Yule Cat wasn’t going to gobble you up! I guess that’s one way to get your children excited about not seeing video-game shaped packages under the tree. As an adult, he longs to find Yule Cat decorations gracing the shelves of shops during the holidays, but the closest we can ever get are black cat decorations at Halloween. I don’t precisely know what this thing would look like, but it would be big, and it would be terrifying. Sculptor friends, if you’re up for a commission, let me know–I would love to be able to surprise my partner-in-crime and goofier-half with the Yule Cat of his dreams (or of his nightmares!) ANYWAY, this review was not simply a ploy to get the attention of an artist who wants to collaborate with me! Or maybe it was! But I’ll review the scent, anyway. Yule Cat is honeyed-balsamic moss, dry earthy musk, and soft, wintry woods.
A Moonlight Winter Landscape (smoky grey amber, frost-black oak, snow-covered soil, Tuscan iris, storm-grey musk, fenugreek, linden blossom, and benzoin) A, sharp biting wind from the north, one hundred years of cursed and frozen silence, and the offer of sugary confections whilst being wrapped in furs in a swiftly swishing sleigh, at the foot of sketchy lady of regal stature who may or may not be an infamous sorcerous. The moodiest, broodiest midnight wander conjuring all of these memories when you’re older and wiser, but also a sorry sort of sorrowful musing on how your time of snowblind adventures and marble-skinned, whispering witch queens is long in the past; how that dark, lustrous, tower-shaped structure in the distance is just a tired old oak, its dead branches heavy with snow; how your heart skipped and trembled under those cold, fathomless eyes, and you sometimes wonder at how it’s beating, still.
The Black Phoenix Alchemy Winter 2020 collection is currently live and available for purchase. As this is a limited edition series, sample sized imps are not available.