Friday, 20 September 2013
Verdigris Cathedrals: ‘Norne’ & Slumberhouse.
For Douglas Brown... a Portland guy, who's been waiting for me to write this for ages.... Ax.
I’m still recovering from the shock of Norne. The dirty green stickiness of it on my wrist, the oils settling like a second skin a pungent, visceral gasp of medicinal fog, dawn bark, mulch and a damp bone-touching thrill of poisoned weather. There is an imagining of vaulted green ceilings, moss-covered and ancient, canopies whispering in the dark. In dreams I wear a crown of woven verdigris branches and leaves. All around me is the smell of crushed needles rising from the forest floor like the bitterest smoke.
Did that grab you? I hope so. I am very taken with Slumberhouse, a small artisan scent house based in Portland, Oregon. I hesitate to call it perfume because I’m not sure it is. Scent design, odiferous abstraction, olfactory drama? The notes create an emotive exploration across skin and senses. There is a feral realism to the scents, constructed with an Impressionist’s eye for effect and detail. When I first smelt them I found it quite hard to imagine who these astonishing creations were aimed at, so personal were the effects.
Slumberhouse was founded by Josh Lobb and a small group of friends operating as a kind of creative collective. Slumberhouse is now just Josh with the others going their separate ways over time. Self-taught and obsessive about every detail of his creations, Josh has assembled one of the most enigmatic and forceful collections of scents I have touched to skin in quite some time. His dislike of top notes and singular pursuit of turbulent darkness really strikes a chord. There is beautiful night and decay in the notes, the smell of fallen stones, lichen-covered trees sinking silently into haunted expanses of forests. Shadows flicker with lost souls and spirits call out in the spaces between notes. I smell magic. Not the elven cringe of Lord of the Rings, but the creeping rise of forest paganism, the sweeping forces portrayed in Princes Mononoke. This may sound a little OTT, but when you first start nosing Slumberhouse fragrances, the impact on the senses is pretty damn forceful.
I sampled Norne, Jeke, Sova, Ore and Pear & Olive. The line has been cut over the last year or so due to cost of materials and the rising cost of shipping. Josh has retained a core line of gripping aromas and while some diehard fans have griped about the cost rise and the loss of Vikt, Mur, Rune, Grev and Verg etc; as a hinterland perfumer most people admire the purifying of his processes.
I like the remaining core collection, for me it highlights all that is weird and compulsive chez Slumberhouse – dankness, irregularity, angst, a sense of saga and most of all a tremendous sense of beauty found in dank and murk. There is a signature: smoke…. a sweet chewed tobacco glow that rolls through the range, lending the fragrances a sense of sacrifice, fumes offered up to the skies from willing skin. An echo of the very beginnings of scent and perfume, per fumum.. through smoke. Even the malleable cocoa glitter of Ore has a passing whiff of jazz age cigarette.
Josh played with synthetics and essential oils in his early creations, searching for a means of olfactive expression to suit his eclectic and curious nature. In several interviews he has mentioned not wearing scent when he was younger. I think in many ways this was a big advantage when it came to re-creating favoured odours and influences the Josh Lobb way. Unencumbered by formal training or the expectations of what he should be achieving and indeed producing, the hard-learned alchemical experimentation has allowed Slumberhouse to grow in secret like a culture in a cracked petri-dish in a forgotten lab. Until suddenly someone says, ‘Damn, this stuff works, it smells like Norwegian Death metal played in darkness under a canopy of shuddering pines’.
There really isn’t anything else like the Slumberhouse fragrances, no reference points, nothing to hang your comparisons on in terms of other perfumes and houses. The D.S. & Durga frontier and American folk style of burning barbershops, animal pelts, the wild west, jazz and Russian aristocratic balls have enormous imagination and arthouse cinema beauty but seem oddly ephemeral in comparison. They do share with Slumberhouse the same desire to create a set of odours that will divide and bind wearers, forging private obsessions and fierce loyalties. Each time I dip my senses into Slumberhouse I am shocked at how much I react, often recoiling. I can’t help it, my brain pulls in the notes and ricochets them around my memory, searching for references, havens and harbours to settle in.
Pear & Olive is Josh’s big seller, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s an outstanding concept, mixing dessert and bar snack, a sweet mimosa-like pear note with the oily slick of fatty green olives. It shouldn’t work, but as it hits the skin there is a weird drift of coconut milk and over-ripe melon. There is Massoia bark in the mix and this has a sugary coconut aroma, often refined and heightened in the distillation process. There is cognac too, this comes through as the scent settles, adding an eau de vie facet to the sumptuous pear. The flipside olive works incredibly well, like witty gastronomy the two elements tussle a while, juice on oil, transparency on opacity before marrying into a harmonious perfume of unusual presence and effect. A little too fruity for my skin, but I love the pear note, one of the best I have smelt, it practically glows, it’s that damn sure of itself. Every house has to have a LBD, something to hang the sales on, it’s not a question of compromising as such, Josh is incredibly proud of his work on Pear & Olive in interviews, but there is not doubting its relative affability in comparison to the crepuscular tactility and confrontational shock of Sova, Jeke, Ore and the ominous Norne.
Ore is a bizarre conflagration of gourmand and herbaceous fire. The notes include cocoa, oakwood, mahogany, guaiac wood, peru resin, vanilla, whisky lactones and the wonderful sounding Dittany of Crete. Ore was always the one that called out to me initially because of the cocoa and on my skin it was a real bombshell of caramel tinted woods and an unsettling Greek salad undertone from the Dittany of Crete or hop marjoram. Some reviewers have mentioned sage, but dittany is quite different, sharper, rubbed and more intensely aromatic. I also like the fact that dittany is used in wiccan magic. It is said that when using the dried herb as a form of incense, spirits can be summoned to appear in the smoke. This small snippet of herbal trivia appeals to me in the larger context of Slumberhouse strangeness and Josh Lobb’s desire to seemingly evocate unknown or unpredictable effects in his scents. The longevity is very impressive (as with all the fragrances) and Ore dries down in a curious bedding/burrow smell of grasses dipped in toasted caramel and left to dry on sandy dunes. Enticing and oddball olfaction indeed.
Jeke just overpowered me… don’t get me wrong, the concept of smoke and fog at twilight is amazing and the notes are assembled with great care. Again extrait strength and really potent, it’s almost like starting to watch a film half way through, everything seems confused and overly complex, you feel lost and vaguely irritated at your lack of orientation. But slowly, your senses right themselves and the textures pull back into fumy, troubling focus. Jeke has notes of benzoin, vanilla, clove, the billowing smoke of lapsong souchong tea, tobacco and a very unsettling patchouli note that lingers like the last troublesome guest at a party. It’s the tobacco that did for me. I normally love a tobacco note, Vanille Absolument, one of my signature fragrances has a lavish Cuban rum-lashed smoke note running through it. My tobacco has to be golden and moist though, like the finest rolling or pipe filler stuff. I gave up smoking my beloved Marlboro and Camels years ago and never thought I’d hate the scent, but I have grown to really loathe the smell of ashtrays and the dirty smeared pub aroma of fag smoke. As Jeke started to unfold I detected a whiff of tar and additives, white paper and filter under the tea and vanilla. Josh seems to love this perturbing key change approach to scent, moving the layers to allow glimpses of other more rarified effects below, before closing the gap again, making you wonder whether you actually experienced it in the first place. Etat Libre d’Orange have a scent in their slutty portfolio called Jasmin et Cigarette which I bought after sampling on my skin and liking the smoky evening waft of jasmine. But oh lord I hated it after a while, everything turned to ashes, cheap cigarattes stubbed out in spilt booze. It made me cold and clammy and triggered catastrophic migraines. It had a lurching hay and apricot combination in it which married with the whopping jasmine hairspray whoosh just tipped me over the edge. I still shudder when I think about it. So Jeke was a no, it is a remarkable scent, but sadly it pushes some personal smoky buttons.
Sova is a bucolic dream, heady summer air thick with drifting pollen and the sound of bees drunk on nectar. Again the tobacco, but this time blended with genet (broom), hay, poplar buds, hops, sap and sweet clover. I love the smell of hops, it reminds me of the all the illegal beer-making my parents did in the Middle East when I was a child, brewing up bubbling yeasty concoctions in black plastic bins for private parties on the compounds where we lived in air-conditioned isolation. This scent reminded me of Terence Malick’s early work before the grandeur and self-importance set in. Particularly the heart-shattering Days of Heaven (1978) with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepherd and the incredible Linda Manz, her woman-child voice like black-strap molasses on broken glass. A destructive love story set against the backdrop of the Texas panhandle at the beginning of last century, the four main characters play out an inexorable descent into tragedy. The quartet represent earth, air, fire and water and this elemental use of thematics deepens the film and ensures that the images and sadness resonate long after the film is ended. It is Malick’s best film, slow, haunting, beautifully shot in tones of red, gold, yellow and amber, like Wyeth canvases moving in sun and smoke. As soon as I inhaled Sova, my memory searched for reference points and I saw in my mind the twilight images of the landowner’s house and Brooke Adams’s character Abby stepping though the grasses. It just clicked. Sova is that moment of doubt, a scent of agriculture and winsome charm, but something in it tells me love is fleeting like ash on the wind.
Now returning to the sturm und drang of my opening paragraphs; Norne is the dark turbulent heart of the Slumberhouse collection, a malevolent glittering malachite jewel. Composed purely of absolutes, no essential oils or aromachemicals, Norne is the pellucid distillation of a dense European evergreen forest, lost in time, the canopy entwined to repel the sun, the floor a woven lifetime of leaf litter, moss, insect casings, fir needles, lichen and spun out dripping webs. The church is verdigris, hymns silent. Josh has mentioned in a number of interviews that early 1980s forms of Norwegian Black Metal influenced his thoughts on Norne. This fascinates me, such a weird and extreme scene that started out with a distinctive and rebellious anti-societal message and struck a powerful chord with disaffected and nihilistic youth. Using often violent and terrifyingly bleak imagery and language, the bands used corpsepaint and Satanic influences to create a very unique and visually compelling wave of anti-sound with trademark shrieked vocal patterns, distorted guitar sounds, asymmetric ripped beats and heavy deep drum sounds. Set against the frozen bleakness of snow, ice and forested landscapes of pretty, liberal Scandinavian culture, the Black Metal scene seemed extraordinary. But the scene was riven by violence and musical jealousies. Drugs and alcohol exacerbated often volatile situations and things started to spiral put of control. In the 90s the second wave of Black Metal was much more anti-Christian and extreme in tone and between 1992 and 1996, some 50 churches in Norway were burned down. Several key musicians and scene players were killed amid band and label rivalries. This may all seem like unlikely inspiration for a scent, but the early strains of Black Metal were deeply rooted in Norwegian culture, obsessed with isolation, personal expression, liberalism and the failures of a state to fully separate from a strict and doctrinal Lutheran church.
I must admit to being quite appalled and enthralled by this mix of metallic mayhem, burning sanctuaries, dense musical darkness and the isolated soaring splendour of eerie muffled forests holding tight to their silence. Shock value? Perhaps, but Josh Lobb doesn’t strike me as a man who plays with influences lightly. It must be very tempting as a niche perfumer to play with ideas and get lost in your imagination, using fragrance as a playground of vanities. A certain degree of self-absorption is of course needed, but a perfumer must never forget the canvas – skin and all the inherent beauty, hurdles, pain, love and laughter the trials of olfactory creation bring. But there is sobriety at Slumberhouse, a steely determination to do things the Lobb way. Of course everyone is influenced by something and Josh willingly admits he is surrounded by different kinds of music as he creates. Like it or not we often have a lot of preconceptions about fragrances before we try them, Houses, their PR machines and now increasingly the perfumers themselves want us to know the scents, their machinations and histories before we wear them. They arrive in our minds pre-ordained as it were and we have only small room for maneuverability.
One of the most absorbing and unforeseen aspects of the Slumberhouse scents is their lack of baggage, PR or otherwise. It is left entirely to the skin of the wearer to determine the nature of the odours and effects. As I slowly sampled each one, I was aware of no real concept of expectation, no whizzing gimmickry swirling as the notes unfolded. Yes, there are pieces of odd esoteric blurb on the site, but precious little in the way of perfumed explanations. In many ways this is why I have felt more liberated than usual in my descriptive flow with Josh’s work.
Norne fills me with wonder. It has Wagnerian ambitions. There is quiet outrage in assembling of such bleak and neglected things. The use of such pure ‘forest’ absolutes is truly beautiful. The absence of any discernable structure makes the composition quite unnerving. Everything coalesces into an incantatory fusion of arboreal alchemy. There are moments as it lies on the skin, breathing, when I wonder if I can really wear it? But inexorably as the flesh pulls it down, Norne becomes veiled and foreboding, rolling across the senses like morning fog on leaf tips and insect wings. I lay in the dark with it sticky and green on my skin, I could feel it like a presence in the gloom. My mind drifted, it smelt like a wooden cabin left to oblivion in the woods, walls falling into the forest floor. Turpentine and creosote, muddied dust, and burning pine. It haunts the senses. I haven’t something this avant-garde and …creepy for ages.
And then what is left after six or seven hours is perhaps the beautiful thing of all, the softest mossy imprint on the skin of a remarkable scented journey. Like waking from a slumber of a hundred years, the flesh smells sweetly vegetative, candied almost, a hint of angelica, emerald dust, medicine, linctus, a memory of needles. Norne is a dream of dark extremes and awe. It is forever night in the forest my darlings and no-one is coming to find you.
For more information on Slumberhouse, please follow the link below:
The images in this piece were taken at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh on Thursday 19th September 2013.
Slumberhouse scents are now also available exclusively in the UK at Roullier White.