If the vast forests of America’s Pacific Northwest were all condensed and concentrated down into a green-black wine, it would still be only a fraction of the tale told by Norne, the famous fragrance from Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse. Norne is an incredibly atmospheric scent that conjured up a host of disparate images in my mind: the terroir of expensive aged, red wines; lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest; and a dark, verdant world straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where goblins, hobbits, elves, and Orcs battle it out amidst a verdant darkness.
Norne was originally released back in 2012 as an eau de parfum, then later reformulated and made an extrait or pure parfum. Slumberhouse describes the fragrance and its notes as follows:
Sunnesette claret embere stains the skie a lustre frigid blush, valel kidelene snowing stars to drope like feathers at a pineneedle floor; lofty wintrus seafrost aerate procede a causatume caesura of incandescence midnight mane, shone crilliant coruscate flitterous & blusterous frore gale of December’s lurid boreale breath[.]
[Notes:] fogcaked needle, lichen, fern, moss, hemlock, incense
A few words about that description and note list might be helpful. First, the note list clearly omits the pine that is explicitly mentioned in the description, but also fir. As for the copy text itself, I have little idea what it really means beyond the most basic imagery, but it always amuses me as some sort of mash-up of High Chaucer and Robert Frost. Still, the key thing is that the note list is a bit sparse. For example, other than the missing fir, there is no doubt in my mind that Norne contains a heaping amount of patchouli since my skin noticeably reflected its earthy, spicy, tobacco, and camphorously green sides. Spices are not mentioned either but I think they’re definitely in there, particularly clove.
The second important thing to know about Norne is that it is 100% all-natural. There are none of the aromachemicals that Josh Lobb sometimes employs in his creations. In fact, Norne consists purely and solely of natural absolutes, a form that is far stronger than mere essential oils. Judging again by what is on my skin, one of those absolutes, the oakmoss, has been used in its darkest form and in particularly lavish quantities as well.
Many Slumberhouse fragrances are bold, dense stories of a particular place and time. At first glance, the story seems to be told in broad brushstrokes, swathes on a canvas that create a largely linear picture, but the compelling parts always lie in the details. One could easily reduce Norne to nothing more than a dark, earthy, green and foresty scent, but it would miss a lot of what sets it apart: namely, the details which contribute to the profound geographic atmospherics, to that sense of a place at a moment in time. Many the beloved early Slumberhouse creations did the same thing: Sova was a farm that brewed hops amidst the sunshine of the bucolic countryside; Jeke was an autumnal tobacco campfire; and Pear + Olive was an orchard in spring. Even the newest release, Kiste, encapsulates a particular region and mood: the plantations of the American South in late summer when people sip sweet tea on the veranda while eating honeyed peaches and smoking tobacco. Each of those fragrances layered characteristics innate to their surroundings to create a very intense sense of time and place.
Norne might do that even better than its siblings, but you need to pay attention. Blink and you might miss its many subtle glimmers, undertones, and flourishes which build up one upon the other to create a constantly shifting kaleidoscope. So although one can easily reduce Norne down to its core as a “Pacific Northwest pine-fir forest in winter,” I think its details actually make it more interesting than that. And it is a story best told in ways other than my usual method of breaking down the details of a fragrance as they appear over the hours. For Norne, concepts, story-telling, and imagery somehow seem more appropriate.
I think that is particularly true for the first 90 minutes to 2 hours when Norne displays its greatest range of nuances, triggering a series of mini-movies in my mind. From the minute I applied the dark green-black liquid to my arm and it began to percolate its aromas, I was transported to a place beyond the Pacific Northwest forests of its inspiration. This was a fantasy world where the overarching, broad, dense canopy of pine and fir hid a far more captivating microcosm below.
In this Norne, goblins, elves, dwarves, and hobbits called Licorice, Patchouli, Tobacco, Smoke, Clove, and Leather live in huts built from peat, earth, and pine logs, their roofs littered with pine needles and sticky with sap from the giant, thousand year-old pine trees that surround every dwelling. The trees reach up to the stars, almost blocking out the light, their tips wreathed with mist and fog. At the furthest periphery of the kingdom, the boundaries are drawn with a solid wall of firs, standing like sentinels on watch, cool, aromatic, blue, and bearing the scent of winter. The ground at their feet is littered with cones and wet leaves but it’s also loamy, wet, and dark, exuding an earthy aroma that has surprising strength.
Yet, few elements can compete with the moss that roams the land like a feral beast. This is not the purported “oakmoss” of modern fragrances, that wan, gasping wallflower lying on its deathbed with its lifeblood drained by IFRA/EU vampires. This isn’t even the rich, plush, full-bodied, oakmoss of Roja Dove’s most expensive fragrances. This is the incredibly high-grade, dense oakmoss absolute that I experienced during AbdesSalaam Attar’s perfume course. The quality rendered it like nothing I’d ever encountered, an almost viscous sludge of darkness that smelt of concentrated black licorice, leather, raw tobacco juice, and black earth. Forget images of fluffy, emerald-green moss growing like a soft, plush carpet because this is a whole other beast and absolutely nothing like what one typically encounters in conventional, blended perfumes or chypres.
Norne’s oakmoss is like something straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit. It is an Orc. This oakmoss is a ferocious creature with teeth, one whose rhino-like skin might as well be leather that’s been slathered with a thick paste of black licorice, tobacco juice, and earth.
The oakmoss Orc is not alone. Its saddle is made from thick coils of patchouli, smelling spicy, brown, but also camphorous green and as earthy as the rest. A heaping mix of that signature Slumberhouse spice accord is strewn on top, wafting its usual potpourri aroma, though this one feels like it has far more cloves than some of Josh Lobb’s other creations. (Jeke comes to mind.)
The cumulative effect of this Tolkien-esque brew made me think time and again of something rather unexpected: wine. To be precise, terroir, that oenological term referring to the way (good) wines incorporate the region and the habitat, and even the innate particulars of very ground in which the vines grow. Some hardcore experts (and I am hardly one of them) can taste a particular wine blindly and single out its region based on the characteristics that it reflects.
Norne reminds me of an Old Vines Zinfandel powerhouse red, not only because of its concentrated nature, its chewy heft, and its bold intensity, but also because it manifests a lot of the aromas of such wines. The spice, smoke, licorice, leather, earth, and feeling almost of gnarled woody roots are all here, lurking under the pine-and-fir canopy. Call me crazy, but there was even a distinct toasted nuttiness to Norne’s bouquet in the first two hours of one test, almost like toasted hazelnuts that had been burnt at the edges. One has to sniff up close to detect it but it’s there nonetheless, one more little flourish and curlicue that is Norne’s own version of “terroir.”
Norne’s first two hours are dominated by the main triptych of the oakmoss Orc, the pine-fir forest, and the patchouli, but change is on the way. At the start of the 3rd hour, the fragrance turns significantly darker as though a blackness had fallen over the land. It’s a smokiness that almost rises to the level of a textural issue because it feels incredibly raspy to my nose, and this is where I start to struggle with the scent. The blackness is tarry in a way that makes me think of Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits, and it apparently stems from the pine absolute. I don’t like it. Its mangly, coarse smokiness is prickly in feel, irritating the back of my throat like sharp needles stabbed into a pincushion, and it jolts me with a crash out of my Tolkien fantasy and thoughts of terroir.
The pine tar smoke grows more pronounced as the hours pass and reaches a crescendo at the start of the 6th hour. Norne is now more black than it is green, and the oakmoss’ licorice aroma vies with the pine smoke for dominion. The oakmoss’ leather side crowds around the edges, egging on the wrestling duo as they duke it out. The sense of actual moss has ebbed away, so overshadowed by the blacker, darker notes as to be essentially choked to death. The patchouli meets the same fate, but the clove potpourri mix is as strong as ever, enfolded into the air around the smoky pine.
Norne remains largely the same from this point until its end. It’s a dark, spicy, licorice-y, leathery, and smoky fragrance centered entirely on the various competing facets of its two players, the oakmoss and the pine. The only major change is to the heft and power of the fragrance. From the summit of a Tolkienesque battle, it suddenly turns quiet around the 6th hour, coating the skin with less vehemence, though the actual scent bouquet itself is still forceful when I smell my arm up close. In its final hours, Norne is nothing more than a blur of pine-ish, smoky darkness with a vestige of black licorice lurking underneath.
Norne had good longevity, initially strong sillage that took a long time to turn soft but, like most extraits, rather soft projection. Using several wide, generous smears equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, the fragrance opened with 3-4 inches of projection and roughly 6 inches of sillage. I had actually expected much more in both categories, but Norne seems to pack its punch (and it’s most definitely a punch) into its aromas when smelt up close. There, it’s immensely powerful, with a dense weight and body that is completely opaque in feel. Even when the scent trail and projection begin to drop at the start of the 3rd hour, the individual notes continue to bear the heft of a hammer. That is true even when Norne becomes a skin scent roughly 6.5 hours into its evolution. Up close, the scent is still incredibly strong, and it remains that way until the middle of the 8th hour when Norne becomes properly soft or intimate. In total, the fragrance lasted just under 14 hours. I was surprised by that, and had thought that Norne’s darkness and intensity would make it outlast Kiste and some of the other Slumberhouses on me. That was not the case. As a side note, when I used a lesser amount equal to 1 spray from a bottle, Kiste became a skin scent on me at the end of the 4th hour and lasted roughly 10.5 hours.
There are a ton of reviews and thoughts on Norne out there, but the fragrance is so well-known at this point that I’d be wasting your time if I followed my usual practice of sharing comparative quotes and analysis. So, I’ll just provide links to Fragrantica and Basenotes for anyone who would like to read more. There are a number of comments on Luckyscent as well. Regardless of site, the majority of opinions are positive, often by a landslide. For example, out of 45 reviews on Basenotes, a mere 2 are negative. 37 are positive and 6 are neutral. 2 out of 45 should tell you something about how much this fragrance is loved and why it is such a cult-hit.
On a more technical basis, I wanted to briefly digress into the colour and texture of Norne’s liquid. It has a dark green hue that is best demonstrated via a photo of Norne in its original eau de parfum bottle. That is still the case today, so don’t let the image of the newer bottle shown on the Slumberhouse or Luckyscent websites lead you to think that the juice is a mustard-yellow shade. It’s not. It’s a dark olive-green. The reason I’m telling you this is to warn you away from spraying Norne near light-coloured fabric. Even when smeared on my skin via a vial, the liquid left a green-ish hue, almost like a very old bruise, though it didn’t last all that long. Finally, my arm was sticky to the touch when I applied the equivalent of 2 sprays, and that stickiness remained for almost 4 hours. In short, I would advise you to exercise a bit of care in how or where you apply the fragrance.
I admire Norne enormously and I clearly love parts of it, but it is not a scent I could wear. The simple reason is that it doesn’t feel like me. I would feel as though I were dressing up in someone else’s clothes, or playacting in a pastiche of the Incredible Hulk’s green suit and a lumberjack. And I’m the last person whom anyone would describe as “rugged” or “outdoorsy.” I was once forced on a long hike up a mountain near Sweden’s Arctic circle, then into an axe-throwing competition (don’t ask), and my friends howled with laughter at my glazed expression and at attire that they said was better suited to the Hotel Costes. This whole Pacific forest, rugged, outdoorsy, nature thing is simply not who I am. Initially, during the absolutely superb first two hours, I thought that I could manage Norne as an occasional meditative scent, a transportative gateway into another world, and thereby something that I’d enjoy as a small decant. But my idiosyncratic personal sensitivity to the smokiness during the middle stage onwards is a problem I can’t overcome. I want so much to love Norne as everyone else does, to wear it and be transported to my fantasy world of goblins, Orcs, pine and moss, but it just isn’t possible, alas.
Be that as it may, I strongly recommend Norne to three groups of people: those of you who actually are the rugged, outdoorsy sort; those who adore hardcore pine/fir forest bouquets and would like the added benefit of having Orc-like oakmoss as a foundation; and anyone who love intensely dark, smoky, green scents with major heft, density, and weight. If you fall into any of those categories, I hope you’ll try Norne for yourself. It’s incredibly well-done, and the sort of bold, take-no-prisoners scent that really stands out.