Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Highwayman (Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab)

Few fragrances are discussed on the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab forum with as much bewilderment as Highwayman. Though not without fans, it seems to leave detractors feeling as if they've been assaulted by some unseen hand. Two days into spending time with it, I started comparing it to Angel, not because it smells similar, but because Angel elicits equally strong, equally contradictory reactions, and because, like Angel, Highwayman is a proposition of opposites which can be as off-putting as it is mind-bending.

Many of the Black Phoenix fragrances require creative association on the part of the wearer; the oils are interpretations of a theme or a subject, and sometimes they're left of center to your expectations. Dracul's pine and mint notes--brisk, almost cheery--are anything but vampiric for some. Jasmine and patchouli might not readily come to mind when you think of the cryptic caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Names like Sin and Perversion are bound to divide opinion. These things are discussed at length on the forum by fan and foe alike.

The first image I got, hearing the name Highwayman, was a pavement-bound drifter, dressed in scuffed leather, mirrored sunglasses hiding his eyes, vapors rising off the asphalt around him, desert on either side of the road; an unshaven stranger, fairly unwashed, his face and hands scuffed with the grease, grass, and dirt of innumerable days out in the open. That image sprang to life like a dry sponge hitting water the moment I smelled the fragrance.

Highwayman is the best leather fragrance I've ever smelled, and I've smelled quite a few. There's just no comparison. My biggest disappointment, even with my favorite leathers, is their eagerness to tame the foul harmony of the real thing. Chanel Cuir de Russie and Lancome Cuir make friendly with florals. Even more openly jarring leathers, like Heeley's Cuir Pleine Fleur, are ultimately a lot more softened than I'd like. Knize Ten, too, is incomparable--I wouldn't be without it--yet as it ventures deeper into tanned territory it sprinkles sweetener about generously. Creed's Royal English Leather and Parfum D'Empire's Cuir Ottoman are smooth and buttery, and ultimately more about amber than anything else. I want something that smells of the undomesticated animal it came from.

Highwayman has gardenia, rose, and jasmine in it but you'd never guess. Then again, gardenia and indolic jasmine are the last thing you'd expect to be paired with leather, about as far removed from the polite iris of Cuir de Russie as a baseball is from a basketball court. There's a floral aspect to Highwayman but you'd be hard pressed to say exactly what. It enhances the overall effect perfectly, the way the unlikely addition of chocolate to patchouli radicalized antagonistic opposites in Angel. The rubbery, camphorous vibe of gardenia works ideally here, and your mind continues to struggle its way around such an improbable counterpart.

Highwayman's biggest emphasis is on the smoked tarry ambience of creosote. The asphalt drives of my childhood were fertile with this smell during the summer, when the sun baked their dark surfaces, giving them a tactile rubbery spring and an aroma which seemed both aggressively unnatural and perfectly appropriate to the surrounding environment, smelling as much of wood as smoke. This quality, without taking Highwayman away from leather, places it alongside Santa Maria Novella's wonderful Nostalgia, which is a much more civilized version of Highwayman, a volatile marriage of creosote and kerosene. The scorched pavement Nostalgia burns rubber on is far too small a patch of land. It doesn't last. Highwayman is a wide open road, and it goes on forever.

Another useful comparison is Garage, from the Comme des Garçons Synthetics series. Again, Garage is a much more transparent and affable fragrance than Highwayman, but it plays around in the same space, among fuel spills and oil leaks and the rubber of well-worn tires. Garage pulls up to the dangling tennis ball, but, unlike Highwayman, it leaves the electric door open, allowing the air to circulate. Highwayman is more of a shut-in. It even lights a cigarette. Like Garage, Highwayman's effects have a lot to do with vetiver. Garage, again, cleans that up, making it a much prettier, more presentable contributor. Highwayman uses vetiver the way several good BPAL fragrances do, exploiting its rich, almost chocolatey depth, full of happy contradictions. The dry down of Highwayman is predominately vetiver, and not dissimilar to Lalique's Encre Noire.

I smell so many things that the idea of a holy grail seems a little bizarre in theory, like finding a needle in a haystack. I've smelled a lot of Black Phoenix scents too, and love more than I like. Some, like Djinn and Now Winter Lights Enlarge, are uncommonly good. The past year introduced me to Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio and Teo Cabanel's Alahine. I knew when I smelled them what people mean when they designate a holy grail fragrance. It isn't that I wear these all the time, or even often. But they bond with my sensibility in a powerful, emotional way, as if they sprung out of my imagination, or take root there in a wonderfully parasitic way. Highwayman is at the top of that list.


Marko said...

Brian -

This sounds very tempting - lemming material, actually - but I'm always in a quandary as to how to apply and wear oils. I've tried BPAL, Posset's and Smell Bent and I've really liked/loved some of the scents, but don't like how "greasy" I feel after applying the fragrance. What's your take on this? Do you just deal with the slimy/slippery aspect of oils? or do you have a secret way of applying them that you wouldn't mind sharing?

Glad you mentioned the CdG Synthetic Series in your post....that's exactly what your description reminded me of.....I LOVED the Tar fragrance from this series - how does Highwayman compare?



Mals86 said...

Fascinating post. I don't think I want ANYTHING to do with a hard-edged leather... but I certainly enjoyed reading your review.

Anonymous said...

Have you tried Dead Man's Hand or the sadly lost De Sade?

quimerula (also in the BPAL forum).

Brian said...

Hey Marko. Great to hear from you. I'm not a big oil person, usually because it just doesn't seem to last as long on me and I don't get as much coverage as you can with a spray. Greasy usually isn't a problem for me. More so when I've mixed my own blends. I recommend diluting with vodka in a decant atomizer. I usually do about a fourth oil to three fourths dilution. People use other things besides vodka too. You still get the strength and it goes wider on the skin. Funny though; actually, several perfumes are oilier on my skin than "oil". Today I sprayed Laura Mercier Minuit Enchantee, and my skin felt a little slimy for a while. I haven't smelled Tar. Well, I did but don't remember it. Own and love Garage. Highwayman is just way more powerful. Garage is really pretty transparent.

Brian said...

I HAVEN'T tried Dead Man's Hand, but I'm going to LA in February and intend to stop in at BPAL. I'll put that one on the list. Other favorites are Vixen, Djinn, Jazz Funeral, Organ Grinder, The High Priest Not To Be Described, Bloodlust, Penny Dreadful, Priala, and Snake Oil. Thanks for the tip, Quimerula.

Peasily said...

Pretty sure "Highwayman" is supposed to hint at the imagery of a romanticized Regency era highwayman/gentleman robber on horseback: earthy rough and tumble in the countryside meets wild flowery masked dandy.