Administrative Status Update

It’s been a bit quiet around here late, but that’s for a few reasons. First of all I’m in what is my peak work period. I write, in part, for a living and Feb to May or June is when I do most of this and unfortunately my team is about half new this year and so I’m having to train a lot, pick up a lot for management and there is really no energy left for ORS (it was kind of the same last year where I posted nearly every day for half the year starting in June). ORS is also working on a lot of stuff behind the scenes as well in terms of research and so forth, which we’re hoping will eventually beat fruit and it does mean there’s a pretty big pile forming up, but this will have to give birth once it can.

I did want to mention really quick that I am really pleased with Mermade’s Dragon Tears. This incense is described by Katlyn as “In my mind, what Dragon’s Blood should smell like…” and in many ways there is no more perfect description that this, because while actual Dragon’s Blood often seems to be prized more for its name, I’ve always been fairly disappointed in it as an aroma on its own. Mixed in with good frankincense and perhaps treated in a way that levels it up with more cinnamon spice pizazz? Sign me up! So don’t miss this little treat. Kat has been incredibly prolific this winter maybe more than I can keep up with at times and I’d describe her as “an artist in the zone” for sure (theres even a couple more things up since the last time I looked). Don’t forget to check out the resins and materials sections either as like I said as she curates some fine materials for sure.


February 2011 Top Ten

This is, more or less, what I have been using this last month. It is winter so I find I turn towards some of the heavier scents. I also just got around to ordering some of the new Indian incenses that have come on the market but it was a late order so they didn’t make this list.

Onkun Koh by Kunmeido: I have had this for awhile; it got buried and then resurfaced recently. It has a deep, somewhat bitter, yet also smooth scent to it with a touch of green notes. There are lots of Chinese herbs and spices floating across a nice woody base. It’s not very expensive, lasts quite awhile and delivers a pretty well balanced ride.

Tokusen Syukohkoku by Baieido: Subtle, complex and a long learning curve make this a great incense. It also happens to use some of the best Aloeswood around. This is something that could easily be overwhelmed if not burned first. There are an infinite number of layers within  this blend, I consider it one of Baieido’s best.

Ranjatai by Shunkohdo: Deep musk mixed with a superb Aloeswood, this is one of my all time favorites, it is also(considering what you are getting) a very good deal. The bundle should last quite awhile, even with “excessive use”. It has made a lot of Top Tens for a good reason.

Sarasoju by Shunkohdo: This is a very good straight up sandalwood, with a minimum of additives. It delivers a very nice Sandalwood scent that is neither sweet,  wet or dry, just, you know, Sandalwood. Great stuff from a very traditional maker.

Kyara Seiran by Seijudo: On a Japanese site that I have seen, this is appears to have both green and purple Kyara plus musk, how can you not like it? But really it’s just stunning; it is also quit strong and potent with a huge amount of depth and complexity. It has all the interesting Kyara notes that twist and turn between bitter and sweet with the musk and spice notes somehow interwoven throughout the mix. I notice that Essence of the Ages has sampler sets from this company.

Tensei by Tennendo: This is another that I rediscovered. Tennendo makes some of the best incense around and this is one of their Aloeswoods blends. It smooth with a nice touch of herbs across a good grade of woods. It is not sweet nor is it bitter, yet at different times it just brushes those notes. Elegant.

Kyara Coils by Yamada Matsu: These are available from Kohshi and they are stunning. If you are similar with Shoyeido’s Tenpyo, they are along the same lines but this is much, much more. I am pretty sure these are using wood instead of perfumes/oils to achieve the scent, it is very deep, smooth and full of that Kyara scent that also has a touch of musk. Not inexpensive, but worth it.

EverGreen Forest & Sacred Grove by Mermade: These two are the deep evergreen, cedar and aromatic woods duo. They are the perfect scents if one has been indoors for too long. These are some of the greenest scents I know of and I use them a lot. They have both been reviewed and talked about here and are simply great. Katlyn goes to great lenths to use the best materials around and it show.

Dragons Blood by Blue Star Incense: Blue Star Incense makes some really nice blends at an incredible price, especially given that he is using natural ingredients plus real essential oils. This one uses a good helping of Dragons Blood resin to produce a very grounded and soothing scent with a nicely done woody base. It’s relaxing, smells great and does a great job of scenting a room at a insanely low price. He also puts samples in with orders. A winner.

Mystic Temple / Red Tara (Red Dragon Durbar) (Discontinued), Green Tara (Dragon Temple Blend), Kali Champa (Durga Rose), Tigerwood (Dragon’s Blood) (Discontinued)

In terms of big incense moments for me, that is those points in history where I can actually point back to and say my current interest in incense is partially because of, my first encounter with Mystic Temple incense in the late 90s was one of the biggest. This was not only the era when halmaddi was used in abundance, but one in which the oils and perfumes often seemed to be richer. There was a little store maybe a block or two down from the Haight Ashbury intersection in San Francisco which I stumbled upon that had a number of their incenses in stock, so I bought as much as I could and started to realize just how superb Indian incense could be.

But it wasn’t just Satya Sai Baba’s blends that took a hit over the next decade, the same thing happened to Mystic Temples incenses. As halmaddi started to disappear the company’s recipes started to change, certain blends would come and go and just a few would disappear forever (I’m still forlorn over a Mystic Temple stick called Ascendance which must have only lasted in their catalog for a couple of years). And where Mystic Temple’s blends used to be close to the pinnacle of Indian incense, we’re now in an era where Shroff, Mother’s and Pure Incense have taken over the spot. And now I’m left having to describe scents with the memories of better days hanging over.

The four scents in questions here are all incenses with coloring. All but the Green Tara are red in color, all but the Tigerwood are durbars of a sort (in at least they’re modern day champa or flora type incenses). The first two in this batch are thick enough to be considered floras and are obviously related given they’re both “taras” and they both use the word “dragon” in the description. I do remember the Green Tara from my early experiences a decade ago, but Red Tara I believe to be a bit more recent.

In days past this Tara style was particularly deluxe, an incense so variant on the Sai Flora formula that its similarities mostly exist on the thickness of stick. But where Sai Flora has a complex bouquet that’s partially a result from how huge the aroma is, Red Tara‘s is a lot more simple as if it’s missing something in the middle. It’s similar to most red colored champa variants with fruity tops and spicy bases and in this case the overall aroma isn’t terribly far from the Madhavadas Magnolia (found in both Pure Incense and Primo lines). But I also get quite a bit of strawberry and that strange note that always reminds me of a fresh box of crayons. Overall it’s definitely a nice scent but like a lot of modern durbar styles where the base has changed, there’s a harsh note that becomes an irritant over the burn, an element exacerbated by the high smoke content. And I probably should note when I first tried a small packet of this I liked it enough to buy in bulk, but I haven’t been particularly impressed by the bulk package version, as if even in the last 5-6 years it may have had a recipe change.

The thing I remember most about the “Green Tara” version of this stick (I think it commonly goes as Dragon Temple Blend), was that even though it had a very alluring aroma, I could never keep any of the sticks lit, as if the contents were too dense. This problem isn’t apparent in the newer versions but then neither is the alluring aroma. In the end this actually ends up being fairly similar to the Red Tara, with a similar “crayons” subnote, although the changes are obviously that this is has some green notes and is a little less subdued and quite a bit hotter. In the old days these green notes had hints of wintergreen and kind of a deluxe perfume mix, the newer version seems by comparison like a more generic green note somewhere along the lines of an evergreen/mint mix. Like the Red Tara, it’ s a very smoky incense and thus problematic in the same ways like being a bit on the harsh side and strong without having much of an assertive personality. It’s still intriguing in its own way, but I’d definitely stick to getting a single packet (and I should mention that it’s inexpensive enough where an experiment would be justified).

Kali Champa is a red colored champa stick that is a variant on several incenses across both the Mystic Temple and Incense from India spectrum that feature a mix of champa elements and rose/floral, cherry and/or strawberry hints in the mix. Even in the halmaddi days I never thought this type of mix was particularly exciting but at least then the sweet honey in the base gave it some breadth that the modern version is missing. But unlike the previous two  incenses, there’s no particularly harshness here leaving this scent sort of generically friendly and thus likely to be pleasant to most who prefer floral and fruity notes. In fact the cherry tartness right on top is probably the scent’s most pleasing aspect, even if it essentially fails as a rose stick overall (and even then only due to the “subtitle”).

The Tigerwood is definitely the odd scent out in this batch, included here more as a sort of convenience. This is a masala incense that I’d probably categorize more in the poorer category. The dominant characteristics seem to be a combination of dragon’s blood resin and sandalwood (or more likely cheaper woods), but it’s largely drowned out by a strange floral perfume in the mix which seems to compromise the dragon’s blood scent, leaving the mix rather unbalanced. Overall it leaves one with a sort of bitter or sour type of scent that I didn’t find particularly pleasant although I should add a caveat that dragon’s blood isn’t really one of my favorite resins, so if you’re more inclined to it you might like this better than I.

Again, this is a rather small subsection of a very large incense catalog, so I consider this an ongoing series whose completion may rest upon any particular future enthusiam. I will admit that in this groups there aren’t really any winners or losers so much, the line does have some impressive scents that you can read about by clicking on the Mystic Temple category somewhere on the left.

Mermade Magickal Arts / Serpent Flame, Pan’s Earth, Wings of Air, Mermade Moon, Sacred Spirit, Salome, Wilderness

[Note: several of these incenses were limited editions and have been since discontinued. Check with Mermade Magickal Arts for availability]

I will always be fond of Mermade Magickal Arts as one of the companys that really showed me how amazing incense could be. While the company does not make them anymore, at one point loose incenses like Shamanic Circle and Dragon Fire were among my staples, blended incenses with fantastic ingredients that had a similar effect like aloeswood on my subconscious. When these were first available, several of the blends had unusual and possibly psychoactive ingredients like datura in them. I noticed the last time I bought these blends before their discontinuation that the ingredients had changed a little and while the new versions were similar, by then either they weren’t having the same effects on me or they were truly different. I originally tried Shamanic Circle in the practice room of a band I was working with and it had a pretty major impact on everyone. I remember thinking hours after the experience that I could smell the incense floating around my memory. In fact the very existence of this site may be partially because of this blend and its company, so in a way I feel I’m coming full circle in being able to talk about them.

I wanted to set this up to demonstrate that to some extent because of these experiences, I’ll always be fond of this company, one that appears to base their products (from incense to music and beyond) on Wiccan/magickal concepts. Immediately I thought of the Scott Cunningham Llewellyn books on incense and my own experiences in making blends from those recipes over a decade ago. This relatively new line of incense “cones” that I’ll be covering here sticks fairly closely to these spiritually minded methods of making incense allied with an experienced hand in incense creation. Every cone here feels like the recipe was experimented with and slightly changed to reach a balance between the woods, resins, herbs and oils in them. And not only that but those familiar with experimenting with these ingredients on their own will realize that there is a rather high quality of ingredients in these “cones.”

I use the term cones in quotes because these are not your typical cones, rather they’re shaped more like flat triangles. The first five incenses (part of the Nature Spirits series) here follow western magickal elemental correspondances and in most cases the element corresponding with the incense can be guessed from the name. And better yet, the elemental quality of each cone comes out quite obviously upon burning. One thing is for sure, most of these incenses have very high quantities of resin in them and if you’re coming over from the Japanese incense side and known Minorien’s Frankincense, you’ll already have your foot in the door in terms of the spicy resin like quality of the cones.

Appropriately the series starts off with Serpent Flame, the incense corresponding with the fire element. Expectations that this would be spicy and hot were met. The base appears to be benzoin, dragons blood and balsam tolu, but particularly I was thinking of the hotter Benzoin Siam when burning this, except that Mermade have managed to balance some of the more difficult sides of this resin. The quality of (Madagascar) cinnamon in this appears to be high and it gives the incense a sort of cinnamon bun like scent, except with hints of shoe polish (in a good way of course) that I’d chalk up to the dragon’s blood. It’s a very friendly incense that really got the whole series off to a nice start.

Pan’s Earth reminded me quite a bit of some of the Cunningham earth-related recipes. I was pretty surprised not to see patchouli on the list of ingredients as it seems by far the strongest note in this incense. This sort of patchouli oil is similar to the types that tend to put some westerners off, except that this is definitely higher quality than what I walked by this morning, a little sweeter and closer to the Himalayan patchouli that I’m fond of. I’m left wondering if part of this might be the vetivert. The other ingredients in the incense are aloeswood, Hougary frankincense and juniper and I particularly get the juniper which gives it a bit of evergreen spice. I thought I got benzoin and lemon from this as well which undoubtedly was the frankincense ingredient.

Lavender is almost always associated with the air element, so its presence in Wings of Air was not surprising. Adding sweetgrass and Himalayan juniper to the mix intensifies this feeling and in terms of hitting the element on the nose, this is almost close to perfect. Using lighter resins like elemi and mastic seems like a very intelligent choice, you get the depth of aroma from the resin without the more definitive notes that come with frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and the like. If the oil note in Pan’s Earth was somewhat overwhelmed by the patchouli (or vetivert) notes, in Wings of Air it’s almost picture perfect. While every single one of these incenses really gets the elemental correspondances right, this might be the classic example in the group.

Mermade Moon is the line’s water incense and as of today looks like the company’s number one bestseller. It’s basically a spicy myrrh incense with quite a bit of play in the oil, which, given the ingredient list, I’d probably chalk up to the Jasmine Sambac. In fact it’s hard to imagine many watery incenses without jasmine as its perfume tends to really capture the changeable nature of a body of water. Apparently the base was white sandalwood, which was a note I didn’t notice so much probably due to the stronger aromatics. Or better yet, this incense uses the fixative onycha, an ingredient from a certain seashells that was apparently used in the original Hebrew temple incense. It all adds up to a rather sultry and slightly Scorpio-like musky blend that could rank as one of Mermade’s best cones.

The Nature Spirits series final “elemental” incense is Sacred Spirit. This is the series woodiest incense by far with liberal amounts of aloeswood and sandalwood. While both of these ingredients do show up in some of the other cones, this was the first where I really noticed them as part of my notes. The woods give this scent a bit more of a sublime scent than the other four, which strikes me as perfect for the “akasha” element in that it’s the one that triggered the most subconscious impressions for me. Like Pan’s Earth, this also has a bit of frankincense to it that gives the scent some more depth.

Mermade’s line Scents of the Sensuous includes Salome. This appears to be a much thicker cone than usual, possibly due to the high number of ingredients in the blend. It’s slightly reminiscent of the above-mentioned Serpent Flame, although not as spicy (and certainly not firey). I’d assume the Tolu Balsam is the ingredient that connects the two. It seems with this incense that it’s a little less about a concept and more about the aroma itself and as such this seems a bit more complex than the elemental line, with varying notes of frankincense and labdanum. It’s very rich and sultry and it strikes me that you actually need very little of the cone to fragrance a space. I was reminded at this point just how important resins are to Mermade incense and there were times this reminded me of a catholic or orthodox resin blend.

I couldn’t find Wilderness on the Mermade site (and it also took me a while to track down Salome), which makes it a little more difficult to describe. But like Salome, Wilderness is very similar to loose resin blends, in this case usually close to forest/celtic type blends with overtones of greenery and trees. I found this a really nice, evocative scent, with the base resin blend spiced up by various herbs. Some of these were spicy, roughly in the nutmeg, mace, clove and cinnamon territories except I wouldn’t swear to any of these being part of it per se. Of the incenses here, this was the one that took the longest to absorb as there seems to be a lot going on with it.

Mermade Magickal Arts have been around since 1984, a family operation whose long years of experience really shows in the creation of these incenses. All of their cones show a great deal of thought in terms of combining base notes, oils and resins and as so many of their incenses are based on various resins, it’s almost as if these cones are a new class or style of incense and as such are a welcome element of one’s diverse collection of scents. It’s great to see this outfit still in operation over the years, still combining art, music, spirituality and craft into a distinctive name brand that continues to be one of the best creative enterprises for scent in the US market.

A second installment of Mermade incenses is forthcoming, covering a few of the company’s loose blends, all of which take me quite a bit longer to go through.