Given Celer’s incredibly voluminous discography, releasing any kind of comprehensive retrospective would be one hell of a quixotic and cost-prohibitive endeavor, but this collection does the next best thing. Weighing in at 14 discs spanning 10 albums, this boxed set celebrates an especially significant and prolific era in the project’s evolution: the self-released albums that Will Long and the late Danielle Baquet-Long (Chubby Wolf) recorded as a duo before the latter’s passing in 2009. Not all of them, mind you, but this collection seems to at least cover the ones that matter most. Given that Celer is based in Japan and Bandcamp was still in its formative stages back then, I suspect very few people were hip enough to pounce on the duo’s early CD-Rs at the time of their original release, but they world definitely began to take notice soon after, as I remember Celer albums being a very hot commodity sometime around 2008/2009 when they started getting widely re-released. Unsurprisingly, there are some remastered fan favorites from that era included here, such as Continents and Cantus Libres, but I have grown so accustomed to Long’s current elegantly minimalist dream-drone aesthetic that I was legitimately surprised by the wider palette of moods and atmospheres explored at the project’s inception. Naturally, the gorgeously warm ambient dreamscapes that Celer has long been synonymous with are still the main draw here, but they are not the only draw, as I found it very illuminating to revisit the less-remembered noirish and sci-fi-inspired sides of the duo’s exploratory beginnings.
This collection is only being released as a limited edition physical boxed set, which makes a lot of sense for a couple of big reasons. The mundane one is that all of these albums are already readily available in remastered form, so this retrospective is very much for the project’s more devoted fans. The more poetic and heartfelt reason is that this boxed set is essentially a memorial to the Dani era and music was merely one facet of the duo’s artistic vision. Obviously, the music is the biggest and most relevant reason for Celer’s continued appeal, but the project has always been something of a multimedia love story/travel diary as well, as the accompanying images and texts often provided important context, clues, and deeper shades of meaning. In fact, I sincerely doubt that Celer would have made such a deep impression if Will and Dani had not found a way to make ambient/drone music feel like something personal and intimate (a feat very few others have achieved). Consequently, making this a collection a physical object with all of Dani’s poems and photos intact seems like the only proper way to celebrate the duo’s shared story. That said, nearly all of the texts, images, and song titles do tend to be teasingly enigmatic. In fact, they almost act like an inversion of the film/film score relationship, as they color my perception of the music without providing much actual information beyond a sense of place and an impressionist glimpse of how Will and Dani were feeling about both life and each other at the time. While I would probably love a Will Long memoir or travel diary, the decision to portray that period instead as an elusive, elliptical, and mysterious collection of dreamlike sounds, images, and words is admittedly the more alluring and Celer-esque path to take. Words and unambiguous meanings are cool and all, but struggling to express the ineffable is a beautiful and noble way to spend an artistic career.
As often happens with William Basinski’s similarly minimal work, it is easy to (wrongly) dismiss a lot of Celer’s work as a few simple loops endlessly repeating, but it seems more like a near-religious obsession with reaching towards the sublime to me. In fact, my favorite Celer pieces tend to be exactly those in which a single blurred and frayed melodic fragment is simply allowed to endlessly loop into infinity (or at least for 20 minutes or so). Obviously, progression and evolution have their place, yet distilling something beautiful to its absolute essence and straining towards the transcendent offers a more rare and exquisite pleasure than what I generally expect to get out of albums. When I hear a truly great Celer piece, I am reminded of the film at the heart of Infinite Jest that is so lethally compelling that no one can stop watching once it starts. In Celer’s case, there is instead a gift for crafting loops so gorgeous that I am perfectly content to let them hypnotically unfold forever without any transformation. When everything about a piece is already perfect, there is no valid reason to break that spell other than the inherent durational limits of physical media.
Needless to say, there are plenty of Celer pieces both new and old that achieve that illusion of an infinite, endlessly billowing heaven and those are usually the pieces that I am thinking of when I describe something as “Celer-esque.” However, spending an entire weekend absorbing this 14-disc retrospective has reminded me that there has been considerably more variety and experimentation with this project than I remembered. For example, this boxed set covers at most only two years of recordings and just from a compositional standpoint alone, there are albums comprised entirely of short pieces, albums comprised entirely of longform pieces, a single album-length track (Para’s “Leave Us Alone To Be Together”), and a collection of 22 brief loops intended to be played in a newly shuffled sequence every time (Voodoo Crowds).
There is quite a lot of stylistic variety as well, albeit exclusively within the realm of ambient drone. The pieces from Sunlir (first released in May 2006) in particular are especially varied and unique. For example, the opening “Spelunking The Arteries Of Our Ancestors” feels mostly like the Celer I know and love, yet also features an oscillating and sci-fi-damaged industrial thrum in its depths that provides an unfamiliar edge of psychotropic unease. Soon after, “How Long To Hold Up A Breathless Face” approximates a fragment of an orchestral film noir score that has been frozen in quivering suspended animation. Not long after, “Espy The Horizon, Miss The Long Road” seems to reprise that trick with a brooding and epic-sounding fantasy score. Elsewhere, “Whimsical At The Cretaceous Extinction” is probably the biggest Sunlir-era revelation, as it feels like a steadily intensifying cosmic shudder of futuristic menace. There are some dark surprises lurking on the other disks as well, however (albeit less frequently). For example, “Archival Footage of Only The Lost And Forgotten” from Scols resembles a time-stretched nightmare orchestra, while Continents’ hallucinatory “Fast Forwarding Sleep” evoked the “haunted ballroom” magic of The Caretaker years before most people had even noticed that The Caretaker existed. The phantasmal horror of “Brackish Nagas Too Low In The River” was yet another bombshell for me, evoking a supernatural howl of anguish that would have made a fine (if harrowing) score for 2001 or Solaris.
While I tend to gravitate towards the one-offs, outliers, and “roads less traveled” on this collection due to my reasonably strong familiarity with Celer’s usual oeuvre, I suspect complete familiarity with Celer’s discography is an unattainable state. In fact, I would be surprised if even Will Long remembered everything collected here. For example, I probably have somewhere around two dozen arguably well-chosen Celer albums in my collection (weighted heavily towards this era, no less), yet there were still plenty of classic pieces that I had not encountered before Selected Self-releases entered my life. There were also plenty of seemingly familiar pieces that made a deeper impression on me now that I have revisited them more than a decade after their original release. I have no idea how much of that shift is due to my evolving taste, the magic of remastering, or because I simply did not listen closely enough the first time around, but it feels I just unearthed a fresh treasure trove of hits regardless. In particular, I was enraptured by the smeared, hissing, and buzzing magic of Scols’ “Municipally, I Let It Slip,” much of Cantus Libres, some of Continents and Neon, “Sans Heavens, Hand In Hand,” and a handful of quivering feedback-gnawed pieces like Sadha’s “The Once Emptiness Of Our Hearts,” but that is by no means a comprehensive list.
My conservative estimate is that there are at least three or four hours of prime/classic Celer highlights to be found here, which is extremely damn impressive for a retrospective encompassing just two years of project that has nearly spanned two decades. Obviously, Will Long conjured this boxed set into existence primarily for Dani and Celer’s most ardent fans (only a hundred copies were made), yet this is the sort of retrospective that deserves to ripple outwards to turn new and casual fans onto some underheard gems from the early days. Obviously, there have been a healthy amount of stellar Celer releases in more recent years as well, but Selected Self-releases is a necessary reminder that Will and Dani were onto something wonderful and distinctive right from the start.