February 04, 2016

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab Perfume Review - Crimson Peak Collection

Purchased items and press samples.

Things I'm a big fan of, in no particular order:

The horror and romance genres.
Tom Hiddleston.

So when Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab came out with their Crimson Peak limited edition series, I may have had a fangasm.

(By the by, if you saw the movie and loved it for the insane, luxurious, bombastic love letter to Gothic Romance that it was, please treat yourself to this excellent review from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. You will not regret it. Trust.)

If you're not familiar with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (aka BPAL), the short version is: they're awesome. Like, crazy, crazy awesome. They have an immense catalogue of perfumes, inspired by botany, literaturefilmgamingworld travelmythologyfairy tales, the esoteric arts, comic books. It's a gothic, exuberant, whimsical magpie type of perfume house, with all kinds of nooks hiding collections of scents you can't even imagine.

A few extra pluses:

1) The perfumes are oil-based, so a good alternative if you're sensitive to alcohol or the fixatives used in commercial fragrances.
2) They're concentrated, so a little goes a long way. (And the 5ml bottles are super travel friendly.)
3) They're naturally-based, so they morph a lot depending on your individual skin chemistry, making for a really individual perfume experience. (The review section of their fan forum is really helpful for parsing out what may or may not work for you.)
4) They're cruelty-free and, aside from the ones containing honey, vegan.
5) They actually take IP laws seriously, so when they do collaborations, it's with the express permission of original creators. (I see you, Firefly nail polishes on Etsy.)
6) They're always doing fragrances for charity.

If you haven't given them a try, I can't recommend them enough. (And if you've seen my perfume collection on Instagram, you know I'm not just blowing smoke.)

Now let's look at (part of) the Crimson Peak collection. ;)

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review

I made my order as soon as these were up on the site, and then a few more showed up, courtesy of BPAL. At this point I've been testing them for over a month (giving natural perfumes a few weeks to settle is best, I've found), and I would say that, based on the ones I've tried, this collection could rank with some of the best they've ever done. The perfumes are not just well-constructed, beautiful, and very suited to the elements of the film they aim to portray, they cover a variety of olfactory tastes. (Side note: if you forced me to choose among my babies, the tiny 2006 Demon In My View tribute to Poe is probably the collection to beat.)

There are 26 perfumes in all, and limited edition, with only 400 bottles for each scent. Five of the perfumes are direct character tributes (Thomas Sharpe is, not unexpectedly, already sold out), while the rest evoke either places, objects or themes from the film.

First up, the character scents.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review Alan McMichael

Alan McMichael
My deepest concern has always been for you. If you are happy, I am happy. 
Bay rum and sandalwood.

Ok. Here's the thing. Sometimes the descriptions are incredibly evocative. And sometimes they give you no idea of what's coming. I read "bay rum and sandalwood" and though "meh, man cologne."

And no. SO MUCH NO. This is dreamy, delicious man-smell. At first I get something that reminds me of Christmas, a hint of bayberries and spice, and then an incredibly smooth, creamy, gentle musk note, cushioned by the softest sandalwood. As it dries, the spiciness mellows out, and this becomes the perfect cozy sweater equivalent of a scent. I think this would be perfect for a man that prefers a scent that invites a partner to snuggle close. Wearing it myself, I find it incredibly comforting. 

(Picture snuggling close to Charlie Hunnam. Possibly he's wearing a super soft, white sweater. There may be an adorable puppy at your feet.Yup. That's this perfume.)

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review Edith Cushing

Edith Cushing
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.
Pearlescent vanilla musk with white sandalwood, grey amber, white patchouli, ambrette seed, and oudh.

This opens up with very clean, somewhere between freshly washed skin and the smell of silk. Even though they're generally considered base notes, I'm getting the white patchouli and the grey amber here. For the first half hour it's not as feminine as I expected, definitely sharper (much like the character).

The vanilla comes out as it warms up on the skin, turning the scent softer and and sweeter, and settling over the resins. The dry down is a lightly powdered, sweet, feminine musk. Very pretty and wearable.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review Mother Ghost

Mother Ghost
Love transcending time, space, and death.
A cold, sheer white musk gleaming with black orchid, benzoin, labdanum, and blackened amber, and embraced by white rose, tea leaf, and vanilla flower.

This is in the same family as Edith Cushing (not surprisingly), but deeper, more gentle, and more mature. The opening notes don't have that clean sharpness - I get the very feminine, very proper notes of the tea leaf and the white rose, rounded out by the sweet orchid scent of the vanilla flower. The coldness of the musk is really more of a lightness rather than a bracing chill, and keeps the other notes airy instead of potentially cloying. (And really, could that capture the concept of a protective but incorporeal mama any better?)

The dry down is a rich, sweet resin, the benzoin bringing out a powdered vanilla note. This is the kind of dry down that keeps the "BPAL is my crack" meme going, since I end up huffing my wrist repeatedly through the day.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak  perfume review Lucille Thomas Sharpe

Lucille Sharpe
Love makes monsters of us all.
Faded red roses and a glimmer of garnet with black lily, ylang ylang, smoky plum musk, and black amber.

What Mother Ghost is to Edith Cushing, Lucille Sharpe is to Mother Ghost. Right out the gate this is sexy and smoky. It's that outdated and decadent red victorian dress from the movie, done in perfume form. The rose and lily are old-fashioned, rich florals, and the ylang ylang punches up the sweetness without going into the usual bubblegum territory. If you don't love florals, this probably is not for you, as it pretty much rolls around in the stuff. As it lives on the skin, the plum musk comes out, adding a faint note of fruit and a counterpoint of brightness to the florals, until the whole thing settles on a bed of rich, slightly spicy, decadent amber.

Thomas Sharpe
Give in to temptation.
Black amber darkens a pale fougère.

This is it: The Smell Of The Hiddles.

The opening is classic men's cologne: a bright bit of something a little citrusy and the sharp astringency of lavender. This is my least favourite part, as I loathe the smell of lavender, which unfortunately smells both sour and cloying to my nose. Fortunately those notes drop down fairly quickly, and what's left behind is the slightly more masculine version of the base from Lucille Sharpe: a faintly herbaceous coolness layered over sweet, dark incense.

It's also an olfactory mirror image to Alan McMichael in many ways: dark and decadent where the other is warm and comforting, sharp and cool where the other is sweet and spicy. Very appropriate to the character, whose proper, genteel British exterior masks something much more sinister. (In my head, this also works as a Loki perfume. Because, well, Loki. Everything always comes back to Loki.)

Overall, I'm really impressed with how all the character scents evoke their namesakes, and with how they play off each other thematically.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review Black Moths

Black Moths
A flutter in the darkness.
Wild plum and blackcurrant with aged black patchouli, vetiver, red rose petal, tonka absolute, and opoponax.

Heady, resinous and uncompromising from the outset, this is in no way a discreet perfume. The opening notes are heavy dark fruits and roses made murky and vaguely menacing by the vetiver and patchouli. If you like older, vintage perfumes, you will recognize this perfume at ten paces. It's the one that'll send all the sugary designer pop star eau de toilettes screaming over the hill.

I'm not usually a fan of vetiver, but here it provides a smoky, balsamic earthiness to the blend (instead of the acrid note I usually get from it). It almost reads a tiny bit like leather. The saturated fruit and rose top notes mesh into that smokiness, and this is the part that's almost off-putting for me - a bit too much smoke and earth, not enough sweet for my liking. As it dries the vanillic tonka and incense notes of the opoponax come through, rounding it out a bit, but still retaining a certain austere quality. Personally, I love the punch of the opening and the restrained dry down but whether you love the whole will depend on how much you like that middle bite.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review

The red of an open artery, the red of congealing blood, the red of a scarlet tomb. A house that breathes, that bleeds, and remembers.
Burgundy musk, bitter clove, crushed saffron, red sandalwood, and red oudh.

This one was a total impulse, and it. Is. AWESOME. Do not wear around people who don't adore sandalwood and red musk, because it'll be in their face the entire time. (But if they favour those notes, they'll love it. I wore it to supper, and an Iraqi friend immediately leaned in after hugging me, and commented how much it reminded him of home.) Crimson is rich, spicy, incense-y (think nag champa), and since it's largely constructed from base notes, it doesn't morph so much as it gets deeper, warmer, and sexier over time.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume review

Crimson Peak
A house like this, in time can become a living thing with timber for bones and windows for eyes. Snow marbled with blood-red clay, frozen over the scent of decayed wood.

The namesake perfume of the collection, with one of those description that is both evocative and unpromising for someone with my scent preferences.

Resolutely trying it out, the first notes I pick out are pine, and that faintly metallic tinge of ozone. It always amazes me how accurately BPAL manages to capture the essence of something as intangible as "snow". Some of my favourite perfumes from them feature this snow note, but Crimson Peak doesn't do it for me in the same way. It's all cool air and winter pines and under that a faint earth note, an odd sort of dustiness. It delivers on what's promised in the description - I can close my eyes and imagine I'm standing in that ancient mansion, winter winds curling in through the broken wood of the roof. As a perfume, it's honestly a bit of a challenge for me to wear for the first hour. As it dries, however, the coolness drops away, the ozone fades, and wood and dust seems to heat up. I catch a whiff of it later on, and I'm shocked at how wearable it is, just golden woods and sweet, warm skin musk.

Not a crowd-pleaser, but if you enjoy the mutable and the complex, this is an interesting one to try.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - Crimson Peak perfume reviewThe Manuscript

The Manuscript
A leather-bound manuscript, ink barely dry. A Gothic ghost tale, personified. 
Leather and paper and splotches of ink, with a hint of ghostly chill.

As I mention in the review for Crimson Peak, one of the things BPAL excels at is capturing a "real world" smell in perfume form, but then tweaking it just enough to still be wearable, and not just an olfactory conceit (*cough Demeter *cough*).

When I tried this one right out of the delivery box, my reaction was NOPE. NOPENOPENOPE. It smelled sharp and sour and chemically and "how is this perfume??" and I scrubbed it off almost immediately. I knew I had to try it at least one more time before reviewing, so I begrudgingly took it out of the box and applied it to my left wrist (the one least likely to be near my face throughout the day).

And then I had to eat crow. Because this is...it's the smell of books, you guys. When I was in college, I spent a lot of time in the McGill Birks Reading Room, which is a quaint little library attached to Religious Studies department. It has old tables and some even older books, and a hushed, reverential atmosphere that has as much to do with the fragile, well-worn pages of the physical books as the subject matter contained therein.

This is the smell. The slightly dry sweetness of old paper (lignin, if you're curious), the sharp balsamic note of india ink (art geeks, y'all know), and the soft, fragile leather of old, cracked covers.

It's maybe an odd one to wear, I'll grant you, but over the hours it fades into something so intensely comforting and wonderful - at least if you're a book-lover. At the end I huff my wrist the way I do my favourite old novels, sticking my nose right in the middle to get that sweet, dusty, memory-laden scent.


If I had to pick my favourites, they would be:

Alan McMichael, because it just makes me feel so happy. Mother Ghost, because when you find the BPAL Crack, you get a litre bottle of it. And The Manuscript, because my other addiction is books. :)