Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Having been a midwestern rock fan my whole life, I’ve come to the conclusion that folks around here don’t just love “heartland classic rock” like John Cougar and Steve Miller—they’re also unusually fond of progressive rock from the UK and Europe. I grew up landlocked and surrounded by mostly featureless landscapes, so I was drawn to the colorful, otherworldly artwork of Roger Dean, the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, and basically any song, story, or comic book that spoke of mythological places. 

Lots of other Chicagoans must have felt the same way I did. From 1969 till 1977, we had Triad Radio, a pioneer of the free-form commercial format with a focus on forward-looking music. Triad played deep cuts by now-obscure bands and was owned briefly by Rick and Perry Johnson—also owners of Rainbow Bridge Studios in Libertyville, the Dog Ear Records chain, and local progressive-rock label Dharma, who put out records by midwestern artists Gabriel Bondage and Atlantis Philharmonic. 

Local label Billingsgate covered similar turf, releasing material by proggy German bands such as Lucifer’s Friend, Neu!, and Frumpy. Chicago in the 70s also had big venues booking progressive rock, including the Kinetic Playground (where Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and the Mothers of Invention all made their local debuts) and the Auditorium Theatre. 

The phenomenon extended down to the grass roots, with Chicagoland kids forming their own prog bands—including the short-lived and completely unknown Apocalypse. While most teenage basement bands were singing about cars and girls, Apocalypse were tuning up double-neck guitars to create suites about faraway lands—and their lone recording, unreleased for nearly 50 years and given up as lost for two decades, finally came out last month.

The five tracks on Apocalypse’s The Castle were found on the master tape from a 1976 demo session.

Apocalypse formed around brothers Tom and Michael Salvatori from west suburban Elmhurst. Older brother Michael, born in 1954, was inspired by the Beatles and West Side Story to start his first band at age 12: he and longtime pal Gary Polkow played pop covers in the 13th Hour. In the early 70s, the two friends moved on to Psychlotron (acid rock) and Strapperjak (horn rock).

Tom was four years younger than Michael, born on December 29, 1958, and he started learning guitar from his brother at 12. “He taught me that if I wanted to really learn to play the guitar, I should develop my ear by listening and learning from my/our favorite artists at the time—Genesis, Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant, PFM, Renaissance, et cetera,” Tom recalls. “I never learned by sheet music—I would drop the needle in the same spot on my favorite records until I learned every note of my favorite guitarists back then.” 

By the mid-70s, Tom was playing guitar in a cover band with his classmates called Phase IV (also the name of a psychedelic 1974 film about ants developing a superintelligent hive mind). “Before Mike asked me to be in his band in 1976 . . . we played high school sock hops and every ‘battle of the bands’ we could find,” Tom says. “We covered Deep Purple, Grand Funk, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Kansas, Chicago, Cat Stevens.”

Mike Salvatori had married his high school sweetheart Gail after graduating in 1973. Gail was a keyboardist, and she went to college in Wheaton to study music and violin. Meanwhile, Mike worked at a print shop, built a home studio, and planned his next band. He brought Apocalypse together in early 1976, when Tom and drummer Scott Magnesen were in their junior year of high school. 

“Gail and I naturally gravitated to the spots in Mike’s band based upon need as directed by Mike, as he was the songwriter, guitarist, and lead vocalist,” Tom says. “Gail played keyboards and violin and sang the harmony vocal parts. Even though I was really into the nylon-string guitar at the time and guitar was my primary focus, I became Mike’s bass player and second guitarist. I played a 4/6 Ibanez double-neck, and when doubling on guitar, I would cover the bass parts by playing the bass pedals from Gail’s Hammond B3.” 

Magnesen wasn’t the first drummer Apocalypse tried, but he was the one who fit. “When we had Scott audition, Mike was really pleased with his skill and energy,” Tom says. “When Scott joined the band, we really started to gel and it felt like a real band.” 

That said, Apocalypse wasn’t a democracy. “It was all Mike back then,” Tom recalls. “He was composing some great songs in the vein of folk/prog rock—and they were all long, very cool songs. He was the director of the band—he influenced all of Gail’s parts and my bass/guitar parts. He had it all in his head, frankly.”

Working within the constraints of Mike’s vision didn’t feel confining to Tom, though. “It may sound funny, but back then anything that Mike asked of us was possible,” he says. “I never felt like there was ever a limitation on what I could do. I remember Scott was a breath of fresh air with percussion/drum work and seemed to influence the songs with such wonderful technical precision and dynamics . . . I suppose in a manner like Bill Bruford would.”

Apocalypse began recording a demo in September 1976, cutting five tracks at a basement studio in Elmhurst. “It was quick,” says Tom. “We went there and just played through our songs with no overdubs.” The remaining sessions, held in 1977, doubled as a test of the new equipment in Mike’s home studio; they produced two more songs, including a cover of “Le Clochard” by Focus. Apocalypse never released the recordings, though—they only sent them to bookers and promoters to get gigs.

For years, Mike thought the last surviving copies of the demo had been destroyed in a studio fire in 1999. That changed in spring 2020, when Tom found an eight-track containing six Apocalypse songs (four from the first session and two from the second) under the bottom flap of an old box of sheet music. That’s the music he sent me, and it was originally intended to be the source for the new release.

Once the wheels were in motion, though, Mike located the reel-to-reel master from the initial session in 2021—an incredible stroke of luck. Because it sounded vastly better, the band decided to release it instead.

That five-song master is 38 minutes long, and it could’ve been a full-fledged album in its own right, with completely realized songs on an epic scale. “The Spirit” and “All the People” clock in at nearly seven minutes and more than ten minutes, respectively, and both share features with the golden-era output of UK band Renaissance, who made several albums of delicate chamber prog in the mid-70s: harpsichord, Mellotron, spindly fuzz-guitar leads, and lovely harmonies that blend male and female voices. 

The sprawling “Only the Children Know” starts acoustic before taking off for the stars with a massive Moog solo, and “The Castle” highlights Gail’s beautiful violin before stepping off into thick, distorted keys and expanding into a sprawling suite worthy of comparison to 70s Genesis.

Apocalypse were together just two years and only played a handful of gigs, mostly at Illinois colleges. “We had wonderful attendance at our concerts because it seemed students were always enthusiastic about the shows that would come to their campus,” Tom says. “I must say it was usually Gail who stole the show, though—every time we played ‘The Castle,’ you could hear a pin drop. Her violin work commanded full attention. Our shows were during an era when people in the crowd were there to intently listen and enjoy the music, rather than being distracted by cell phones and social-media endeavors.” 

The band’s final concert was a bittersweet date at the high school all its members attended. “Our most memorable gig was being celebrated as seniors (Scott and I) and alumni (Mike and Gail) at York High School in the spring concert series of 1977,” Tom says. “It was our last performance—Scott and I were preparing to go to college, and Mike and Gail started their family.”

RELATED (Story continues below)

If Apocalypse had toured or signed to a label, they might’ve left more footprints behind. But as you already know, their story has another chapter—and that’s where I get involved. I’ll try to be impartial, but I already know I’m not.

When I interviewed Michael Salvatori about his career for Secret History, he didn’t even mention Apocalypse by name. Tom saw the column when it came out in June 2020, though, and on a lark he sent me a copy of the Apocalypse eight-track he’d recently found. I freakin’ flipped! This was music I loved and understood, and I felt it had to be committed to vinyl. 

I immediately played the demo for a Spanish label I work with, Guerssen Records, which specializes in reissues of obscure psych, folk, prog, postpunk, and more. The folks at the label were floored as well, and we got down to business right away. I wrote the liner notes, and my girlfriend Sara Gossett painted the era-appropriate cover artwork. After more than a year of work, the lost Apocalypse album, titled The Castle, came out on March 25, 2022. 

My label Galactic Zoo Archive, which is under the Guerssen umbrella, released The Castle in partnership with Guerssen imprint Out-Sider. It’s been a labor of love for me—as is customary with such reissues, I was compensated modestly, with an up-front finder’s fee and a few copies of the LP. 

“We have been most pleased with the consistently good press reviews the music has received,” Tom says. “That has been the most unexpected and humbling part of releasing something 46 years on. . . . It gives us a sense of validation for what we were trying to achieve back then, and a bit of relief that the test of time hasn’t hurt us too badly!” 

Of course, the members of Apocalypse have made other music in the decades it took for their old band’s album to reach the ears of the world. Using hours when his studio wasn’t booked, Michael recorded his only solo album, the sought-after 1982 private-press folk LP Waiting for Autumn. He worked on music for TV commercials, including a famous 1985 campaign for Flintstones vitamins, and ended up cofounding his own agency to pursue jingle writing full-time. In the mid-90s he began to shift into video-game music, and he’d go on to create the score for the massive 2001 smash Halo—plus four of its sequels over the next decade.

Tom spent two decades in the ad industry himself, and began recording his own original nylon-string-guitar compositions in 1995. At around the same time, he and Mike started managing a boutique record label called Salvatori Productions, which has a roster of five artists and nearly 30 releases. Gail Salvatori has taught violin and performed widely, most notably on several records by Mannheim Steamroller. She recently retired from a job as orchestra director at Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst, and she’s making instrumental music influenced by Christian hymns. Scott Magnesen became a financial advisor in Oak Brook, and he and his wife, Lynn, have become well-known on the competitive ballroom-dancing circuit.

When I ask Tom if an Apocalypse reunion is in the cards—maybe a one-off concert or a new studio session—he jokes around. “We laugh about it after all these years,” Tom says. “Mike did say he could probably be talked into an Apocalypse reunion if it was for a European tour, and only if each of us could have our own tour bus. He insists I snore—and that’s why he wants his own bus. I’ve never heard myself snore, so I think he’s making that up.” 

Rock music has a great history of brothers squabbling onstage—consider the Allmans, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Here’s hoping Apocalypse can join them!

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.