by Kevin Cowl
The American Sgt. Pepper? No. The first rock opera? Not quite. A stunning song cycle of top-level playing, innovative production, and insightful lyrics? Yes.
Aorta's self-titled first album appeared out of nowhere in 1969, a fully formed and exquisitely realized vision of American angst, hope, and imagination. The theme that ties it all together is the heartbeat that begins side one (predating Dark Side of the Moon's use of the same theme by 4 years). Right away, you know these guys are serious.
The cover says it all. A black and white chest x-ray with a red photographic image of the heart exactly where it should be. Not quite the kandy-kolored kaleidoscope album artwork of their contemporaries. Turn it over and four very serious young men look out at you (again in black and white) from the four points of the compass: Bobby Jones, Jim Donlinger, Jim Nyeholt, and Billy Herman. When I picked up the album in 1985 in the used bin at Desert Shore Records in Syracuse, NY where I was going to college, I said to myself "these guys look like they know what they're doing." And I handed the $5 to my green-Mohawked friend behind the counter and was on my merry way to find a turntable.
I had first heard Aorta on a great compilation called Psychedelic Dream a few years earlier. One of the Nuggets variety of lost '60's garage classics collections, Aorta was well represented on it by three stunning cuts – "Sleep Tight," "What's in My Mind's Eye" and the epic "Catalyptic." I was bowled over and had to find out more about this band. But pre-Internet, there was no information to be found. It was years later and quite by accident that on a summer day with nothing to do, I popped into the shop and met up with an original copy in very good condition.
Aorta was recorded at Great Lakes Recording Studio in Sparta, Michigan, and produced by Bill Traut of Dunwich Records, but released on Columbia. The band came from Rockford, Illinois (home of Cheap Trick) and were originally called The Exceptions, and included future Chicago member Peter Cetera. When Traut approached them about making an album of original music, they jumped at the chance - all except Cetera who left. Aorta was a stop on the careers of several members. Donlinger had been in The Rotary Connection and was later in Lovecraft. Herman went on to the New Colony Six. Eventually, Donlinger and Nyeholt ended up in Coven.
The theme "Main Vein," divided in parts I, II, III, and IV, strings the album together with the familiar heartbeat. "It's your main vein..." "Main Vein I" fades in and the guitars and keyboards build in volume and intensity and a martial drum roll announces the arrival of the band in full force. As quickly as it arrives, it fades back out giving way to the first cut "Heart Attack" – a shimmering guitar and organ duel that has a funky middle passage and great interplay – as if the band was introducing themselves and getting you ready for the rest of the ride.
Psychedelic anthems "What's in My Mind's Eye" and "Magic Bed" follow, all warbly vocals and stop-start structures, with a carnival atmosphere clearly nodding to the "recreational pursuits" of the time. Lyrics like "Swimming in ice, as I take a drink, from a glass made of jelly!" kinda nail the mood.
Traut's production does a damn good job of capturing the style of George Martin's work on Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Horns, strings, circus music, vaudeville, sound effects – all used liberally and thematically to add a story quality to each song. He understands the music and brings out its theatricality. Granted this is not Lennon and McCartney caliber material, but he takes it to its logical limit and makes it more than I think the band ever could have imagined it being. "Main Vein II" gives way to the magisterial organ intro of "Sleep Tight," one of the album's best-remembered cuts. A near perfect pop-psych construction – its breezy shuffle builds to a high-pitched tension, and soaring vocals give in to a drum break with searing double tracked fuzz guitar. A churchy intro then builds into "Catalyptic." First recorded in ‘67 by the band Colours – Aorta does to it what Hendrix did to Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" – they redefine it. The intro fades out and the album theme of the heartbeat builds back – then leads into a raga-style key and guitar part that stops suddenly while the drums roll into the main part. A paean to isolation and loneliness and the increasing separation of American life: "27 flowers from the next one, I don't even know his name. The nights are always so cold, and the days are all the same." Then later, "lying, lying, I grow weak from lying, who will see next, will I remember them?" The organ and the drums pound out an intense groove out while the guitar plays a one note bend until it closes side one.
Phew. Ready for more?
"Main Vein III" open the next side with a bit of lilting acoustic guitar picking the question: "have you ever wondered what it is? It's your main vein."
Flute and trumpet announce that we are on "Sprinke Road to Cork Street" which is a like a good pleasant walk that goes dark. "Sprinkle Road to Cork Street will keep your dream alive, think that you're taking a magic carpet ride" until..."you think you're lost and blind to everything and soon you'll wake up dead." Wow.
It ends suddenly and then you're on a date in "Ode to Missy Mxyzosptlk" with whom you are enjoying "inner meanings and concert evenings" and you can "touch the sky, live until we die." Sounds pretty good! This gossamer raver features soaring guitars and a galloping beat – hopeful, eager, young, fearless.
It ends on a drum rollout into a bizarre organ intro to the next big hit from the album "Strange." A good angular boogie with a descending refrain, it's the end of love. His girl is "strange, you act like this before, seems you don't love me no more." The middle part has a guitar solo that mimics a frenzied conversation between two people over proggy organ arpeggios, and eventually cutting back into a wild descent toward the end. A bummer? What can he do to "prove that he's a man?"
This gives way into the most mysterious song on the album: "A Thousand Thoughts." A schmaltzy Lawrence Welk-y easy listening orchestral ballad. Where this came from, and why it's here is the big mystery. What did they think they were doing? Who among their audience was this for? Listen to it once if you are curious.
Fortunately, the album closer "Thoughts and Feelings" brings Aorta back in full form. This is reality now. The trip is over. We quickly shake off the reverie to the sounds of adult life – an incessantly crying baby, a ringing telephone. The song builds in volume and is driven by a nervy, circular bass line and in an instant we are in the grown-up world. The summer of love is over and now the hard reality of life – marriage, kids, jobs, responsibilities – is tugging at you. Yet the ride is not over for the narrator. He rebels, saying he's "feeling rather high" and screams defiantly that he's "never coming down, down, down, down, down, down, dowwnnnn..." with a gritty wail that channels the best of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Joe Cocker. The "Main Vein IV" theme comes hopping back but this time it's celebratory, not brooding. It IS your main vein, and it's the key to your life – the engine of your possibility.
To listen to this album is to take the full ride. There are few albums that do this as well as this one does. It achieves near seamless perfection in its writing and production. Lovers of Spirit's 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus will appreciate its uniquely American sound and vision.
The performances are inspired and passionate. The playing is pro but not slick. The production elevates the material and never overshadows it.
The mood perfectly bridges the gap between the giddy, fun psychedelia of prosperous '60's America and the dawn of the darker '70's. But this is not the San Francisco sound of the Dead and the Airplane, nor is it dusty Laurel Canyon country-rock. This is Midwestern suburban kids seeing the dark side of the thrill ride, the rot at the center, the comedown from the dream, and reflecting it here in this taut cycle of brilliant chamber rock.
Their next album, Aorta 2, is almost unrecognizable from the first. They took a mellower country and Christian direction, adding a few new members. It failed to make any impact and disappeared - as did the band.
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