Mermade Magickal Arts / Kyphis, Incense Cakes; Espirit de la Nature / Giroflee Ordorante

It seems like with the new kyphi mechanism in play that there’s been a substantial creative outburst at Mermade in the winter months. Combine that with ORS being in something of a downtime, it can be really hard to keep up and deeply go into some of these new and wonderful scents that Katlyn has been whipping up in winter months, so I thought I’d do my best to try and do some sort of overview to catch up on some things. As I’ve mentioned before, the catalog window for a lot of Mermade goodies is short and often ORS reviews can shorten them a bit more, and even when I start a review page in draft, I have to keep tabs on what is still live or not by the time I’m ready to publish something. And this too, of course, goes for the Espirit de la Nature incenses that show up. It’s often like watching a car zip by.

So let’s start with the Mermade kyphis. I covered Kyphi #2, Goddess Temple, here. I believe the #3 was the green Emerald Temple variant and the #4 was the Amber Kyphi (pictured left), all of which are now gone, at least for the present. If you read the #2 review then you will realize these are largely intriguing variants of the same sort of kyphi base with a new front. All of them are wonderfully etched in detail and I’m just generally of the opinion that if you see a Mermade kyphi go up for a sale then it’s a good idea to start planning an order. The amber variant did not last long at all and it is a really wonderful incense, with the back half connected through this kyphi lineage and the front a wonderfully perfect amber scent, distinct and almost definitive. And I think the #5 variant here (coming soon, will link when live) will be Goddess Temple with Oud (pictured right). I just have a few early samples of this one from Katlyn’s last package but I might have to separate this one from the “usually special and magnificent” to the “particularly special and magnificent” category. I love the way the oud in this one sort of tinges and modifies the kyphi lineage of all these previous incenses. It does so in a way that might create the most significant change of this line of incense. It feels less like it has a new top note and more like the oud has just deeply infused itself into all aspects of the scent. When you think of kyphi as this sort of aged melange of ingredients that all add up to something like an aromatic vintage, the #5 seems to be a really cool leap sideways that might make you feel like you’re trying kyphi all over again.

Another project Katlyn is working on is “incense cakes.” There are three different ones that are all very recent, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, Rose of Isis and Dionysos. These are all essentially a mix of resins, woods, herbs and spices that are all formulated into small little discs with a stamp applied and mostly mixed in with another natural ingredient. The first blend is subtitled a Mesopotamian incense and includes cedar wood and essential oil; Suhul and Yemeni myrrh; Iranian galbanum; styrax – liquidambar; labdanum resin and absolute; black frankincense; and juniper herb and berries. Not sure if my botany is up to this guess and it’s not in the ingredients, but the cakes look mixed in with eucalyptus leaves or something visually similar. You can actually really suss out the specific ingredients in this mix and one thing I like about it is that a lot of these are not as common in available incenses so you really feel like the styrax and labdanum are quite forward here and the evergreens give it all a more herbal quality than a green one. It all adds up to a nicely mysterious mix that reveals a cool creative take on a regional scent.

Rose of Isis is a bit more straight forward a blend, with the rose and sandalwood mix out in front. The rose comes from three different absolutes, and the sandalwood is the quality Mysore, but in addition there’s Sahul myrrh, Saigon cinnamon, Hougary frankincense, and benzoin; the mix dusted with agarwood powder. I’ve long understood Katlyn to have a really deep connection with Isis energy and have experienced a number of her crafts in this vein both on and off the market to know she is a vessel for it. The rose here is lovely and powerful, redolent even in the fresh tin, in the way that a friendly rose absolute can lead to it being a bit like valentine’s day candy. But there’s not just that element, but a really genuine scent of the actual rose flower that is paired with that. As the heat continues the rose note will tend to fade into the background more, with the myrrh and cinnamon comng in louder towards the late heat. The sandalwood seems a bit milder than you might expect, mostly due to the powerful rose front, but it tends to tie everything together in the background.

Dionysos is something of an incense cake version of one of Katlyn’s older incenses with the same name. In fact this review is still probably fairly spot on in many ways and here you can get this almost vintage spirits sort of vibe just over the fresh cakes in the tin. Part of this I believe is the black currant bud absolute. As a kid who grew up in England in the 70s, black currant was almost ubiquitous in sweets and I loved it. Here it’s modified by some of the other ingredients into kyphi-like age, like a fine intoxicating spirit. There’s classic incense resins (undoubtedly part of what carries the currant), agarwood, juniper berries, sweet tobacco absolute, cassis (also black currant), galbanum and a pinch or two of sativa. I sort of roughly classify this kind of incense into Katlyn’s later summer blends, there’s this sort of feeling of heat and harvest at work, ripe berries, hay and herb. One you definitely would want to pull out at a party, an event much richer with the god of wine in attendance.

There were also a couple new Encense du Monde incenses in the Mermade catalog of late but one blew out incredibly fast and the other might be gone by the time I get this incense live (3 left! Going, going..). This last one left (well they both were!), Giroflee Ordorante, is naturally up to Bonnie’s incredible talent, an incense that boasts a very involved ingredients list: “Matthiola longipeta ssp bicornis enfleuraged [night-scented stock] while still on the stem into benzoin, palo santo and tolu balsam resins, propolis, rose extract, palo santo wood, sandalwood, rosewood, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, patchouli. Bound with reduced organic honey. Powdered with monarde fistulosa- rose variety.” What I immediately notice with this Nerikoh style blend is the mintiness and balsamic qualities combined, but it’s sort of the layer a lot of complexity sits on, a complexity I am not sure I’d even have the time to get into before this very original blend disappears. I’m not even familiar with what appears to be the main note, the night-scented stock, so I can’t place it in the aroma exactly. So in many ways Giroflee Ordorante is certainly unlike any nerikoh style incense I’ve tried in a Japanese catalog, but it stretches the form in quite the innovative way. These little pellets pack both a massive and quiet aromatic punch with that almost trademark creative touch Bonnie has that feels like fractals disappearing into infinity.

And I’d be amiss to not mention that the latest batch of WildWood is in stock, and while I haven’t tried this latest one yet, it’s certainly in a lineage where I have loved every single one and it is something you’d have to consider a Mermade evergreen classic.

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Nippon Kodo / Free Pure Spirit / Pure, Spirit (All Discontinued)

I’m about to go brutal here, so look away if you’re squeamish. Quite simply, this Nippon Kodo line might be the very template for what can go wrong with mainstream Japanese incense targetted to a modern audience. It’s a line of three incenses that confuse the line name and each incense name by having the latter come from the former, all of which have strange (and somewhat uneven) white boxes that have you trying to figure out which one you’re looking at for a few seconds. But that’s by far the least of the incenses’ problems.

I occasionally walk by people wearing synthetic perfumes. A lot of the times the memory this evokes for me are the strong chemical smells I experienced in organic chemistry labs in UC Davis. In general I find synthetic aromas to flatline very quickly, in general they are rarely incenses that will grow on you, at least positively. With both Pure and Spirit, it wasn’t long before both scents were literally becoming unpleasant to my nose. It’s true, all three scents in the line are meant to be fruity and I’m no appreciator of fruity incenses. However, I don’t think these incenses are even successful with what they’re trying to do. Like the Fragrance Memories line, this is Nippon Kodo working with a combination of three scents for a composite fragrance. In both Pure and Spirit’s case these elements clash miserably.

Pure goes for a red berry, grapefruit and pine needle combination. Even the idea itself doesn’t sound all that great to me. The outcome is basically a bitter,  astringent mess, where the harsh notes of the grapefruit citrus are actually unbalanced even more by the pine needle element. The red berry is almost overwhelmed by both and the whole thing smells like artificially scented soap bars. It’s like a caricature of a good incense and even over several sticks, the experience just got worse and worse. The last stick for this review I ended up putting out, swearing I’d never light one again.

Spirit is better, but not by much. This one goes for green tea, lemon and peppermint and, like in Pure, the former element is drowned out quite a bit with quite a bit of clashing going on. Green Tea itself often has a very subtle quality to it, so pepping it up with lemon and peppermint is like adding fruit syrup to beer, it just ruins a good thing. Even comparing this to, say, the Green Tea cone in the Cafe Time series is unfavorable for this incense. All I get is harsh, synthetic lemon and mint smells that batter the senses into submission. The lemon, at times, seems more like orange or tangerine with a citrus imbalance. It all comes off kind of like diet soda, affected negatively by the aftertaste.

I tend to like to complete series before I review them here, but in this case you couldn’t get me within 100 feet of Free, based on these two incenses. Quite frankly even some of the cheaper lines in the Nippon Kodo catalog are more pleasant than these, including some of the basis Morningstar incenses. And with those you’re paying only a fraction of the price on this line. Overall, I just don’t see the point to incenses such as these when you can get a $12 roll of Baieido Special Kokonoe or Kobunboku for nearly half that.

Nippon Kodo / New Morningstar / Aqua (Discontinued), Bloom, Earth (Discontinued), Grass

Nippon Kodo’s New Morningstar line includes four different incenses, all of which roughly align to one of the four elements. Each box contains 40 sticks and will run you about $5 a box, although package deals can be found that reduce this a little, and there are gift sets with ceramic burners.

For my money, a line like this seems targeted more at the casual incense lover. While I have a fondness for one of the blends in this series, the others strike me as possibly synthetic or synthetic seeming, in a way that will remind you of perfumed soap. Fortunately it’s only a mild note in the line and probably won’t bother most, but it was enough to make it hard for me to get fully behind these.

Aqua is a jasmine, tangerine and cyclamen blend that was already familiar to me due to a smokeless version Nippon Kodo has in their Ka-Fuh line (also called Aqua). While both versions are very close, I thought the watery nature of this incense was a little more prominent with the New Morningstar version. This blend strikes me as wet, with citrus accents, and the jasmine seems mostly sublimated to the blend rather than being obvious. I know the local store really prizes the Ka-Fuh version of this incense (and it appears to be the best selling of that line for NK), but for me it just doesn’t have a real cutting power to it and there’s just a bit of a synthetic feel that doesn’t work for me. But it does have a uniqueness to it that might appeal to those who want something light and floral.

Bloom looks like the fire incense with the red stick and packaging. It’s also the most floral of the four incenses with its white plum, muguet (lily of the valley) and tulip blend. This is the incense of the four I liked the least, and without looking at the ingredients I wouldn’t have even considered it next to other white plum incenses (it also makes me wonder if this corresponds to the Ka Fuh White Plum as well). It has a burn that reminds me more of a scented candle than an incense and is perhaps a tad on the sweet side for my tastes.

In comparison to the rest of the line, the Earth blend stands out like a sore thumb. Where the rest of the line usually has a strong floral note on top, this blend of black currant, cinnamon and chocolate features the cinnamon element as the oil note. I really liked this incense when I first bought it, it struck me as being the best of the chocolate-themed incenses I’d tried from Nippon Kodo (the other two would be the Café Time Mocha cones and the Fragrance Memories Paris Cafe blend) with all three elements playing off each other so that at times each of the three notes is dominant. While over time, it has struck me (and mostly in comparison to other incenses) as a slight touch soapy, it’s still quite enjoyable.

The last of the four has a strong air element to it with the lavender note blending with bergamot and artemesia. It’s less Grass than a wind blowing through a field and it has a rather dominant citrus/lavender oil to it as well as a slight floral touch. I can imagine lavender lovers might take to this one as it’s a pretty crisp blend, but like the whole line it’s difficult to see the blend as particularly distinctive.

In summary, I’m probably not the target audience for this line so much, particularly considering it’s more a floral line than a wood or resin one, but like a lot of Nippon Kodo incense, you have to admire the ambition at work. If your tastes are similar to mine, you might want to give the Earth a try, but if they’re more to the floral than these are inexpensive enough to be worth a try.

Nippon Kodo / Yume-No-Yume (Dream of Dream) / Bamboo Leaf, Butterfly, Fern (Discontinued), Fiddlehead Fern, Goldfish, Horse-Tail Plant (Discontinued), Japanese Morning Glory, Maple Leaf, Pink Plum Flower, Whooping Crane)

Nippon Kodo seem to be the largest Japanese incense company, especially when looking at all their various lines and collaborations. From their very inexpensive Morning Star Line all the way to the Most Exceptional Quality kyara line, the company has a wealth of different incenses, being one of the few Japanese companies to also have a bamboo stick line. In fact only Shoyeido has a similar wide range in styles and tastes.

As incense is generally a niche interest in the United States and usually allied with new age shops, there tends to be strong trends towards smokeless incense and all natural incense. From research, I think it’s very difficult to tell where a company diverges from using all natural ingredients to using organic if not entirely natural ingredients all the way to the art of perfumery where synthetic oils and ingredients are often taken for granted. Having wandered too often into the wake of mainstream and heavily synthetic colognes and perfumes, it’s easy to get turned off by the idea.

As far as I can tell one of the identifying features of an incense that has a healthy share of synthetic ingredients is how strong a stick smells without burning it. Natural ingredients by their lonesome don’t stand out very often from Japanese sticks, especially sandalwood and aloeswood heavy sticks, which is a far cry from sampling fresh Indian masalas. Nippon Kodo’s Yume-No-Yume line is a good example of an incense whose fresh stick could nearly scent a room without lighting it.

This line is rather elegantly presented for the modern consumer. The gift packs come with incense and a porcelain holder (both also sold separately) that mirrors the packaging art, usually a white background with slight Japanese art that reflects the nature of the incense. Yume-no-yume also comes in both stick and coil form, and while I haven’t tried the coils yet, the scents do seem eminently suited to that form (if maybe too much for smaller rooms). The only thing to watch out for in the packaging is the plastic holder that contains the incense and mini burner, it’s far too easy to cause a spill opening the holder (counterintuitively) the wrong way. Other than that bit of warning that becomes mitigated once you get used to it, I actually really like the packaging.

If I remember correctly, Nippon Kodo’s Fragrance Memories phases certain incenses in and out every so often and I believe they do something similar with this Yume-No-Yume line as I’ve happened across one incense that seems deleted (for now). Currently the line has nine different blends and the least impressive of these incenses is fine indeed.

Pink Plum Flower contains key notes of white plum, red plum and willow leaf bud. This listing of the ingredients will automatically give one the impression there’s something different at work here, as I don’t have a clear idea of what each of these three notes might be like. Like the whole line, the stick is strong and pungent, far more so than any natural Japanese plum flower incenses, most of which I’ve tried have been very mellow and light. In fact that sort of subtlety is what prevents me from being totally behind this blend, it may be the least distinctive blend in the range.

Goldfish is the other incense in the line that doesn’t quite come up the rest. While I’m generally very impressed at the way certain notes are blended for effect, I find it pretty hard to get used to the mint/watermelon/jasmine blend, especially with the whole water motif at work here. I’d almost forgotten jasmine was involved but the other two are quite strong. It’s definitely unusual, but a bit like a symphony not quite in synch.

Butterfly was the first blend I tried and won me over fairly quickly. Here, the key notes, geranium, vanilla and cinnamon all blend almost flawlessly into a scent that reminds me more of amber than any of the other blends. Part of it is not terribly far from Shoyeido’s Horin/Nijo scent, but as a far more perfumed scent this is much stronger in impact and not as subtle.

Bamboo Leaf might be my favorite of the whole line, it appeals to my taste for sweet/green and patchouli-esque hints, despite the fact it doesn’t appear to have patchouli as an ingredient. The green tea is way out in front and surprisingly the yuzu citrus and lemon flower notes don’t really give that much of an impression of a lemon tang to the tea, I get the impression they mostly add to the complexity. This is probably the one I’d start with first if you’re new to the line.

Maple Leaf is another favorite in the line, its hints of persimmon, tonka bean (think vanilla), and ambergris blend perfectly into a rich and somewhat fresh scent. While this doesn’t strike me as quite as amber-like as Butterfly, it’s obviously by ingredient in that general class, but the name of the incense isn’t misleading either, with some hints that will likely remind you of a pancake breakfast, partially due to just how sweet it is.

Whooping Crane might be the least intense blend in the line and you can see why the choice is made. With a winter/snow motif, there’s a very slight mint hint to what is a rather perfectly blended combo of camellia, musk and frankincense. I detect the musk at times, but frankincense can often be a tough call since quality can vary so much. As far as a packaging theme to incense scent relationship, this is about as spot on in the line as it can get. Very sultry.

For fans of fruit scents, you can probably do no better than Fiddlehead Fern, which takes berry intensity into its own level. Lots of fruity incenses strike me as pretty synthetic or unsatisfying, so it’s kind of a jolt to find out that the one I like the best might be the most synthetic in the bunch. Very fruity and rich with the raspberry middle almost, if not quite obliterating the black currant and leaf bud of peach notes. Quite impressive overall.

My second favorite in the line is probably the Morning Glory, partially as it strikes me as YNY’s most exotic blend. The green banana in particular is fabulous and the vetivert gives it most of its Eastern tinge, almost musky and dense. I’m used to bergamot as being slightly citrus-y, but it’s kind of hard to detect here. Above all, the oil scent is just a little unusual and it really adds quite a bit of character, although at the odd time it might seem like everything clashes – only for a moment.

The strangely named Horse-Tail Plant is not likely to win over the western consumer, but it ought to as it’s the weirdest incense in the line. For one thing, it’s the only incense with only two named notes, strawberry flower and oil-seed rape blossoms. Neither name gives any hint to the blend involved here which is almost beyond description. The small print says “Fruity-green. The refreshingly bitter scent of new leaf buds in the moning dew.” Bitter might be the only descriptor that resonates with me, but again it’s a bitter I’ve not quite experienced before.

The deleted line is called Fern, and I assume Fiddlehead Fern was its replacement. You can see why in some ways as other incences in the line capture similar qualities better. The notes are maple leaf, yuzu-citrus and bitter orange and if you scroll up you can see all but the latter note in other blends. Here they don’t seem to blend quite as well, although I may think differently after another sample or two.

Overall, this is a really neat line. Whatever you might consider synthetic, the scents here are clean, smooth and not headache inducing in any way, they’ve certainly changed my mind about the potential of the meeting of perfumery and blending arts. And they’re also very affordable, a package of 12 sticks or 5 coils (without holder) running you about $6-$7. I’m actually looking forward to the next switch out to see what they come up with next.