Put aside thoughts of punk rock and the Pixies‘ front man, Black Francis, wailing (or shrieking) “Debaser,” the group’s gritty 1989 song, and imagine instead an idyllic boat ride on the River Cam in Cambridge, England. Fig trees line the mossy riverbanks, hanging like weeping willows until their tips touch the water, lying heavy and burdened with their black fruits whose leathery, tannic smell wafts over the green waters. The river is filled with bamboo water, coconut milk, and the sap of green leaves and crushed pear stems. The last two combine to smell almost like the watercress sandwiches nibbled on daintily by punters whose boats glide gently over the serene waters on a quiet, sun-dappled, lazy Sunday afternoon. This picturesque scene is the real world of Debaser.
D.S. & Durga (hereinafter spelled without the periods as just “DS & Durga”) is a small perfume house founded in 2007 in Brooklyn, New York by David Seth Moltz (“D.S.”), a musician, and Kavi Ahuga (“Durga”), an architect. Their company website explains their artisanal approach and American inspirations:
D.S. & Durga make perfume and cologne in small batches using premium-sourced raw materials. All scents are created exclusively in-house. Some of their inspiration comes from outdated herbal wisdom, native ritual medicine, lore and legends, historical movements and Americana. The scents are the stories of prospectors, gentry, trailblazers, frontier women, drawing rooms, workbenches, cowboys – fragments of half remembered legends, movements, events, and foreign lands. […][¶]
[They started by] tincturing flowers, herbs, and spices to make aftershaves for friends. When they realized that none of their friends shaved (this was 2007, mind you), they started blending oils, resins, and plant extracts. The results were small batch perfumes and colognes, and friends loved them. Durga had an idea: she could distill her designs into the architecture of fragrances (and the packages they live in) and D.S. could write songs in scent.
For Debaser, an eau de cologne released earlier this year, the song that D.S. sought to “write… in scent” was the gritty punk anthem of the same name by Black Francis of the Pixies. DS & Durga describes the perfume and its full set of notes as follows:
The wild shrill of Black Francis coming
through the radio in the August heat. Ripe fig, iris, coconut milk, tonka and dry blond woods.
Top: Bergamot, green leaf, pear stem;
Heart: fig, coconut milk, iris;
Base: blond woods, tonka bean and moss.
As my story at the start of this review should have made clear, if you’re expecting that “wild shrill” or anything even remotely resembling punk rock grittiness, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Debaser is galaxies away from such a world, to put it mildly. But if you put aside any thought of edgy darkness, and if you love figgy greenness with serene and soothing coconut-bamboo milkiness, then you might enjoy Debaser quite a bit. I certainly did at times, and I’m generally not one for green scents at all.
Debaser opens on my skin with the greenness of bitter leaves and crushed plant stems, followed by black figs and a drop of coconut milk. The fig smells primarily like the dark, bitter-sweet skin with only a few slivers of unripened, fleshy fruit. None of it smells like a truly fruity scent as we typically think of that genre, partially because there is little sweetness, but mostly because the fig is heavily tannic and then thoroughly blanketed by the bitterness of green leaves. That greenness is further amplified by a quiet mossiness in the base that has a hint of mineralized dampness to it as well.
Minutes later, the pear appears in the background, quiet at first as it hovers next to the muted, muffled coconut milk, but soon to grow quite prominent. It is handled quite unexpectedly here because it doesn’t smell like syrupy fruitiness but, instead, as though the pear’s leaves and woody stem have been crushed with drops of pear water. Something about its aroma strongly resembles watercress that has been lightly infused with pear essence. I used to make a chilled summer soup with watercress and green pears, and the similarity to Debaser’s “pear” accord is striking.
What’s interesting is that Debaser’s opening consistently varies on me depending on the arm to which I apply the scent, though the differences only last 30 minutes before both versions merge into one. When I wear Debaser on my right arm, there is barely any fig at the start and the dominant chord is bamboo. To be precise, the coconut milk merges with the various green accords, diffusing them, sharply undercutting the leafy bitterness, and resulting in something that smells almost exactly like bamboo. It reminds me strongly of Slatkin’s “Spring” scented candle that I used to buy primarily because it had a very liquidy, semi-creamy, green bamboo aroma. Here, in Debaser, that same smell is laced with coconut milk and the semi-sweetened liquid of crushed leaves, then finished off with pear juice and a drop of fig.
This version of Debaser is still primarily green in smell, feel, and visuals, but its balance is quite different from the scent on my other arm. Above all else, it is not, as noted earlier, laden with figs. It’s also sweeter, creamier, softer, less leafy, less bitter, and barely tannic. The fig is there, but it is only one of several secondary players and tends to fluctuate in strength. Much of the time, it plays peek-a-boo on the sidelines, looking on as the coconut dips and swirls both the bamboo and the leafy-stem accord in a three-way dance.
The two versions essentially collide after 30 minutes. One arm starts to lose its powerful figginess, becoming milkier and less tannic, while the other one actually gains more fig. The pear-bamboo-crushed stems-“watercress” combination ripples over them both, connecting and turning the two versions into one. It’s such a zen bouquet, one whose greenness is imbued with liquid serenity and a very bucolic feel, and it conjures up two images simultaneously. First, it’s as though parts of a lake, a fig orchard, and a bamboo milk had been combined into one. Second, it feels like a high-end smoothie that you’d get at a luxury spa located near a river at Cambridge or Oxford. I almost expect Zen-ish spa music to tinkle in the background. I find it to be a delicious opening, though how this is meant to replicate Black Francis’ guttural, punk shrieks is utterly beyond me.
One thing I’d like to stress is that Debaser is neither a fruity nor a sweet scent in the traditional sense of those words. The fruitiness is not the gooey, cloying kind found in, to give one example, Slumberhouse‘s Pear+Olive, let alone in the common fruity-floral genre. The notes here are too imbued with liquidity and a leafy greenness that borders on the astringent at times. By the same token, while there is coconut, it is such a milky, almost watery sort, that it is worlds apart from anything unctuous, let alone sun tan oil. Yes, Debaser has some sweetness, but it is a more naturalistic variety than anything sugared or syrupy. For someone like me with an extremely low threshold tolerance for sweetness, Debaser’s opening hour is almost like a screwy version of an enjoyable fruity “gourmand,” but I’m sure that absolutely no-one who loves actual, true gourmands would ever think Debaser qualifies.
In any event, the sweetish, rather Zen, delicious “smoothie” doesn’t last for long because Debaser changes quite a bit at the end of the first hour and the start of the second. The coconut fades rapidly from sight, existing mostly indirectly via the “bamboo” aroma that it creates with the other elements but it’s no longer noticeable in its own right. Actually, it is much more noticeable from afar than up close. There, Debaser is devolving into a simplistic bouquet centered heavily on figgy leafiness with bamboo and only the quietest whisper of milky sweetness.
The balance of notes shifts even more dramatically at the 2.5 hour mark when the fig essentially sings a solo on center stage while the other notes look on from the chorus. The fig smells almost a little leathery, occasionally skewing a bit sharp in feel, and is more like tannic skin than ever. The bamboo, crushed pear stems, and “watercress” accords hover on the sidelines, though the all-encompassing leafy greenness remains. To a lesser extent, so does the sense of liquidity. In the base, a new, silky smoothness appears. It’s not creamy, per se, but feels like a deepening of the coconut instead. Once in a blue moon, a hint of woodiness hovers in the background, but it’s not a solid, strong, or consistent note on my skin. For the most part, Debaser now smells primarily of dark, leathery, tannic figs nestled amongst slightly bitter leaves and lightly splattered with sappy, dewy wetness, all atop a silky smoothness that is vaguely creamy.
It’s a very short phase because Debaser is, at its core, primarily about greenness above all else. Less than an hour later, the chorus of pears, watercress, bamboo, sweetness, and creaminess turns silent, leaving an increasingly strong, astringent wave of leafy greenness and figs. Those two central chords jockey for power, tugging back and forth for the perfume’s central focus, and the figs eventually lose. Near the end of the 5th hour, Debaser is mostly just leafy greenness with a slightly bitter facade and laced with the thinnest streaks of leathery, tannic black fig skin.
Debaser remains unchanged for a while, but a ripple of creaminess pops up in the base at the start of the 8th hour, smelling like a mix of coconut milk and tonka. It is a muffled undertone with a very elusive, inconsistent character and certainly isn’t significant enough to change Debaser’s main focus. I had to sniff really hard and up close to detect it. In any event, the tonka-milk doesn’t last for long and, in the middle of the 9th hour, it melts into the greenness. To my surprise, it essentially recreates or brings back the bamboo accord. The fig vanishes at the same time, leaving nothing but bamboo greenness that lasts until the very end.
Debaser is an airy, light scent with very good longevity but extremely quiet projection and minimal sillage on my skin. Using 3 big smears equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, it opened with roughly 2.5 inches of projection that quickly dropped to 1.5 inches after 20 minutes. At the end of the 1st hour and start of the 2nd, the fragrance projected between 0.5 and 1 inch, at best. There, it remained for a while. It became a skin scent after 4.25 hours but, unlike some fragrances, Debaser was not easy to detect up closer and I had to put my nose right on my arm to smell it. That said, it lasted just under 10.75 hours.
Debaser has received mixed reviews. In terms of blogs, my friend, The Scented Hound, seemed to love the fragrance, calling it “bold” and “sexy,” and giving it 4 stars out of 5. On his skin, the “luscious pear” only lasted for moments, replaced largely by “woody note that seems to strip the green out of the fragrance,” along with fig and coconut. Neither of the latter “become suffocating,” and “[i]n the end you’re left with a really lovely mossy and woody concoction that is nicely accentuated with a lightly sugared fig.”
I encourage you to read his review in full, as I’ll move onto to Fragrantica where there is more ambivalence, as well as quite a bit of understandable grumbling about the disconnect between Debaser’s name and Pixies inspiration, and its actual bouquet. For most people, Debaser does not fit its label because it is either primarily a fig fragrance on their skin, a mixed fig and creamy coconut scent, or woody-coconut one. As I said at the start of this review, your expectations are really going to shape your reaction to the scent. One commentator who describes herself as a “huge Pixies fan” anticipated something far different than the heavy bamboo that she experienced, so she wrote with displeasure: “Smells like fresh green bamboo and coconut, not very punk rock. This should not be a fresh and clean fragrance, but it totally is. I am not a fan.” On the other hand, another poster loved Debaser as a lighter, more wearable, versatile version of Slumberhouse’s Pear+Olive.
Other fragrances are brought up as being similar. “Deadidol” mentions Diptyque‘s Philosykos, writing in part:
The Pixies connection must be personal as I can’t fathom what a stock fig scent has to do with either the band or the song.
There’s not that much you can do with fig — they’re green and a bit milky. This one’s not that different from all the rest (except perhaps Soivohle’s Figgy Plum, which is a strange one). The only real distinguishing factor that I can come up with is that Debaser is slightly less subtle than a scent like, say, Philosykos. The greenery is ramped up a notch; there’s a raspy cedar-like effect in it; and it’s maybe a tad more milky. Something about it doesn’t quite sit right though, and I think it’s a vanillic / coumeric sweetening note of some kind that’s tucked away, but isn’t working. Also, it smells more grassy than fig leaf usually does. Weird.
Debaser isn’t bad, but it’s unoriginal with a ho-hum blend and it seems like they missed the goal as far as verisimilitude goes. Spikier and more jagged than other fig scents with a bit more of a candy feel to it as well. If it’s a green, natural fig you’re after, look elsewhere. [Emphasis to perfume name added by me.]
For “Landshark321,” Debaser was reminiscent of Imaginary Authors‘ Yesterday Haze, and he writes, in relevant part:
Debaser is the first D.S. & Durga fragrance I’ve smelled and it’s an agreeable, fresh fig scent, that opens very prominently with the fig, which also hangs around for as long as the fragrance does. Debaser leans green and slightly woody but is still centered around the fig note, which, combined with a coconut, does give a beachy, summer-like feel, yet I’d say it has all-season versatility since it’s not particularly light or aquatic. [¶][…]
Somewhat reminiscent of Yesterday Haze from Imaginary Authors due to the fig prominence, but much fresher due to the bergamot and perhaps the pear. Overall, not one I would reach for but one to try for fans of fig. [¶] 6 out of 10
He also mentions two other things that I very much agree with: that Debaser is quite informal in feel, and that it’s a “tricky sell” at $145 for 50 ml. Since I’m not a Pixies fan and had no expectations coming into the scent, I very much enjoyed Debaser’s first hour and, every time I’ve worn it, I briefly contemplate buying a bottle. I’m a sucker for bamboo scents, I love pear nectar, and I enjoy coconut milk. However, the thought of buying a bottle never lasts for long. Debaser is simply too wispy, sheer, and discreet for my personal tastes, and the scent is primarily various forms of bitter leafy greenness and fig for the vast majority of its lifespan. I am not so enamoured with either to pay $145 for a small bottle, particularly as the coconut, bamboo, and pear elements that I enjoy are merely fluctuating undertones when all things are considered.
All of that is a very personal consideration, though, and I would recommend Debaser to anyone who passionately loves both fig fragrances and greenness. I’d also suggest it to someone who is looking for a cleaner, fresher, significantly lighter and greener cousin to Slumberhouse’s Pear+Olive. But, please, leave your expectations of punk rock grit and edginess at the door. You’ll only be disappointed.