During the mid-'60s, the members of Aorta -- originally hailing from Rockford, IL -- had previously been in a group called the Exceptions. Early members of this group included Kal David (later of Illinois Speed Press and H.P. Lovecraft), Marty Grebb (the Buckinghams), and Peter Cetera (Chicago). The Exceptions were a soulful, if unremarkable, Top 40s cover group who were nevertheless acclaimed for their "exceptional" musicianship. They were one of the more popular acts on the greater Chicago local scene, and released a handful of singles on numerous Midwest labels -- Tollie, Cameo, Quill -- and for L.A.-based Capitol. For the last of these releases, the band dropped the "s" from their name and began calling themselves the Exception (a compilation for the Collectables label, The Quill Records Story, collects two of their singles). They also recorded an EP called "A Rock & Roll Mass for the Flair label; it featured six different rock songs with words taken from various religious prayers. As each member of the group -- with the exception of bassist Peter Cetera -- already had an eye toward expanding their original material to include a more "psychedelic" sound, they soon reconfigured themselves as Aorta, and, in late 1968, recorded a single for Atlantic. Eventually, producer Bill Traut (American Breed) approached them on behalf of Dunwich Productions, Inc., and -- with Bobby Jones taking over on bass after Cetera's departure -- they accepted his offer to record their debut album for Columbia in 1969. They recorded two albums under the name Aorta. The first of these, the self-titled Aorta, is today highly acclaimed as a lite-psych album of some minor renown, and though it managed to chart on Billboard's album charts, it failed to do what was expected. A revised version of the group -- still led by Jim Donlinger and now featuring Michael Been on bass/guitar/vocals -- recorded the drastically different second album, Aorta 2, for the Happy Tiger label. Jim Donlinger -- who along with his brother and Jim Nyeholt (during a brief period between the two albums), had all played in the Rotary Connection -- later left Aorta to join Lovecraft (formerly H.P. Lovecraft, who were signed to Reprise at the time), while Billy Herman would eventually move on to join New Colony Six. Michael Been later played with Moby Grape members Jerry Millerand Bob Mosley in Fine Wine, and ultimately achieved his biggest success with the Call. Been is also the father of Robert Turner of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The original Aorta later re-formed (joining another great Chicago-area group, the Cryan' Shames) to do promo spots for the U.S. Armed Forces on a very rare promotional LP. They've appeared on numerous compilations over the years. Aorta was re-issued on CD in 1996.
This is the debut album by a relatively obscure Chicago-based group whose membership can be linked to various other Chicago-area groups who have wider name recognition, including the Rotary Connection, Lovecraft (formerly H.P. Lovecraft), and New Colony Six. After first recording a single for Atlantic Records in 1968, the group -- previously a lounge act called the Exceptions -- signed with Columbia Records, the label who issued this eponymous debut, in 1969, during the same month that debut albums by three other Chicago-area acts were issued by Columbia: Illinois Speed Press, the Flock, and Chicago Transit Authority (featuring Peter Cetera). Columbia marketed each of these albums together as a part of a so-called "Chicago Sound," and all four entered the Billboard Top 200. Despite using numerous sound library effects (crying babies, ringing telephones, etc.) and the fact that songs on each side of the album run together with no break in between, Aorta probably shouldn't be viewed as a "psychedelic" album. Instead, a more accurate description would emphasize the group's jazzier art rock side, not to mention their abundant use of dramatic pseudo-soul vocals and histrionic guitar/organ arrangements. In truth, Aorta sound more like a few other keyboard-heavy rock acts of their day, especially Three Dog Night and Argent. The only single taken from the LP was "Strange" (an edited version of the track issued earlier by Atlantic) b/w the wonderfully titled "Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk." Aorta's album ended up peaking at around number 168 and remained on Billboard's charts for a respectable six weeks. Aorta was reissued on CD in 1996.
1 Main Vein I
2 Heart Attack
3 What's In My Mind's Eye
4 Magic Bed
5 Main Vein II
6 Sleep Tight
8 Main Vein III
9 Sprinkle Road to Cork Street
10 Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk
12 Thoughts and Feelings
13 Main Vein IV
A monster classic of 60s psych! Yes!
This album really has the whole package, from the sophisticated production blending killer organ and guitar sounds, horns, strings, etc to distinctive, great vocals and outstanding songwriting. There are no weak tracks here, and each one has some melodies or hooks or stinging, powerful instrumental ideas that suck me in. There are also at least two or three bona fide elite classic songs here, really memorable, catchy slices of genius that belong on any comprehensive "best of 60s psych" comp.
In the flow of the album, there are a number of fascinating departures from conventional pop song format, notably the opening track and its unforgettable "main vein" chorus.
The whole vibe of the album is really unusual, not something that fits in with any of the standard reference styles for the era. One minor reference point, however, is early Chicago and the bright, hard-rocking horn-pop sound. The blues-rock element is masked with Aorta though. Something of this general flavor is in parts of Food's classic Forever is a Dream too, and I'd bet most fans of Food would dig Aorta and vice versa, just on an abstract sensibility, not on any especially strong similarities.
Probably the primary feeling of the music comes from the organ. Stripping away the brilliant compositional and production maneuvers, This is slightly heavy, trippy, psychedelic organ prog-psych-pop with an exaggerated, dramatic vocal style atypical of psych bands. (Not to the extremes of Arcadium or Vanilla Fudge though!)
The prog element deserves special mention. This was 1969. I'd argue this was one of the earliest prog albums in history. It really has a lot of the prototypical features of prog despite the psych context.
A singular gem whose peaks don't approach the highest of the era, but which earns a privileged place in my 60s rock collection for its consistent excellence and evocative, unforgettable creativity.
Rip from CD 256@ (full artwork included)