By Greg Maki
While music—specifically metal and hard rock—has been my primary interest for as long as I can remember, I don’t think I will ever understand why some bands succeed and others do not. Why some ascend to superstardom while others struggle to get noticed. Sure, some popular bands are just so good at what they do that success seems inevitable for them. But others with little talent and even less originality often become just as big or bigger. Then there are those that seemingly have all the talent in the world but just can’t catch a break. It’s hard for those bands—harder than ever before and harder than those of us who aren’t in a band trying to make a name for itself will ever know—and most can no longer continue indefinitely as a full-time, national touring and recording act.
Which brings me to Silent Civilian, the modern thrash metal act former Spineshank frontman Jonny Santos started just a few years before the thrash resurgence kicked into high gear. Releasing two albums, the second of which was through Century Media, this band had all the goods—crushing riffs; relentless, thunderous drums; shredding guitar solos; and rage-filled songs that often built to soaring, melodic choruses. Silent Civilian should’ve been huge, but for whatever reason, the metal world hardly even noticed as the band struggled to land major tours and essentially was left to fend for itself as band members—many of whom simply were not made for the life of a struggling, touring musician—came and went.
“I think it’s really hard now because so many tours are being turned into festival tours,” Jonny told me in a 2011 interview. “And if you don’t get on those festival tours, it’s really hard to find a good … strong headliner to go out with, where you’re gonna be exposed to a certain amount of people every night.
“If we can keep climbing up the ladder and land tours like Lamb of God to Killswitch (Engage)-size tours, I think that’ll really start to push the band a little more. We’ve had really bad luck as far as getting on any big tours lately. Not necessarily saying it’s anybody’s fault, but the politics in this business—sometimes it’s who’s got the most money to buy onto the tour? Things of that nature.”
But those LOG- to Killswitch-size tours never materialized, and Silent Civilian quietly disappeared after playing its last live shows in early 2012, less than six years after the release of a debut album full of so much potential.
Santos founded Silent Civilian in 2005, the year after he left nu metal act Spineshank, with which he had released four albums and scored a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance.
“I was not happy with the direction of the music anymore, and I also think that the band had kind of just run its course,” Santos told me in 2006. “I think that Spineshank did what it was meant to do. I don’t regret ever being in that band. It’s some of the best memories of my life, but I think that the day was up.”
Without a plan for what he was going to do next, Santos spent some time working in music production and engineering, and most importantly, rediscovering his love of the guitar after being solely a singer in Spineshank. He soon started to assemble his new band, finding drummer Chris Mora on MySpace and bassist Henno in an Australian band that had come to America and subsequently lost its singer, and eventually linking up with guitarist Tim Mankowski.
The name Silent Civilian is a striking one, and not just because of how easily it rolls off the tongue.
“There’s so many people out there that seriously have so many opinions on issues, whether it pertains to life, politics—any issue,” Santos said. “So many people, it seems like they don’t voice their beliefs. They stay quiet and kind of run with the grain of society just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I think that we live in a nation full of silent civilians.”
While the political nature of the band name rears its head throughout the debut album, “Rebirth of the Temple,” released on May 2, 2006, via Mediaskare Records, on songs such as “Force Fed” and “Lies in the House of Shame,” the subject matter across the record is varied, with songs of empowerment—including the title track and closer “Live Again”—inspired by Jonny’s experiences in picking himself up after leaving Spineshank.
“Because there’s so much negativity lyrically in metal, I felt like I wanted to write a few songs that really were based on what I went through after I left Spineshank, hence the title of the record, ‘Rebirth of the Temple,’ as in the temple, the mind, body and soul is your temple,” Santos said. “It was rising from the ashes of yesteryear. Basically, you can’t change your past, you can’t change anything that you’ve been through, but you can change where you go in your future.”
For “Falling Down,” the record’s most abrasive, unforgiving track, Santos drew his inspiration from the 1993 Michael Douglas film of the same name. “The Song Remains Un-Named” is “about somebody that I really, really hate profusely and imagine actually lying in a pool of blood sometimes, and I didn’t want to give that person the justice of having their name or anything anywhere near it,” Jonny said.
Produced by Logan Mader, former guitarist of Machine Head and Soulfly and now with Once Human, the record is an absolute rager, with Santos singing and screaming with equal passion and clearly relishing his return to the guitar. He busts out ferocious riff after ferocious riff and shreds his way through solos on all the tracks. If “Guitar Hero” had picked up “Divided” or “Wrath” from this album, we might be having a very different conversation today. Up front in the mix, Chris Mora’s drum sound is massive, as if he’s banging away in the room with you. It’s a star-making performance that would not go unnoticed.
The band’s first tour, opening for a reunited Nothingface, started with a blizzard and only became more trying from there. Ten days in, Mankowski decided the touring life wasn’t for him and said his goodbyes. Henno broke his ankle and performed sitting down with one leg propped up on a chair before departing as well. Thus began the revolving door of guitarists and bassists that would continue throughout the rest of the band’s run.
“The thing about this life is it’s not made for everybody,” Santos said. “… With these other guys, sometimes they get really down and homesick, and I’m like, look, this is part of the gig, man. I do, too, but this is the life that I’ve chosen. … Think about it, is your life really that bad? You make a living playing rock ‘n’ roll and getting free booze and chicks every night. Is it so bad? You get to do what you love to do.”
At the end of 2007, Mora, who had been Santos’s primary collaborator on “Rebirth of the Temple,” left the band, leaving Santos as the only original member. (Mora went on to join Black Veil Brides in 2010, where he still is today, performing under the name Christian “CC” Coma.)
The following year, Santos reunited with Spineshank, first for a tour, then to write and record a new album (“Anger Denial Acceptance,” released in June 2012). His next release, however, came on May 18, 2010—“Ghost Stories,” the sophomore effort from Silent Civilian—again via Mediaskare, which by this point had become part of the Century Media Records family.
Produced by Santos and with the band now consisting of guitarist Dave Delacruz, bassist Robbie Young and drummer Ryan Halpert, “Ghost Stories” has a raw, aggressive feel in the spirit of classic thrash metal. While it doesn’t abandon the melodies of the debut, it’s a dirty sounding record and Santos sounds monumentally pissed off throughout, as if he’s trying to break out of your speakers and strangle the first person he sees. The opener, “Let Us Prey,” includes blast beats and death metal-style vocals—this is a meaner, nastier Silent Civilian than we heard four years earlier.
With a slower, menacing groove, “The Phoenix” is a fist-pumping metal anthem for the ages, while “Victim of Fear” offers an equally satisfying mid-tempo crunch. “Last One Standing” is one of the album’s heaviest, thrashiest recordings but still leaves room for a hook-filled chorus. On the other hand, the lead single “Atonement” features clean vocals almost exclusively, and it’s a well-written song that beats Bullet for My Valentine at its own game.
The best song, the one that sums up Silent Civilian better than any other, is the title track. Building from a moody intro to fast, thrash-metal riffing to a heavy groove leading into and out of its sweeping chorus and throwing in one of the band’s best solos, “Ghost Stories” is a dynamic, dramatic masterpiece of epic proportions.
“This time around, I challenged myself,” Santos said in 2010. “I actually wrote about situations that I was going through. I had a lot of pent-up anger from the last four years, a lot of different things that have happened in my life and people that have happened in my life that I really wanted to address. It makes a lot of difference when you’re actually writing and singing from your soul as opposed to telling a story about what’s going on in the world today. I think that probably had a huge impact on the lyric process and the brutalness of the vocals on this record. When we finished the record, I listened to it and I said, ‘Shit, I do sound fuckin’ pissed.’”
The touring that followed the album’s release, which included a run opening for Fear Factory, saw more band members come and go (the band’s Wikipedia page lists a total of 12 members throughout its existence), with Santos and Young as the mainstays. Plans were in motion to return to the studio as soon as the “Ghost Stories” cycle ended. Santos even had a title for the hypothetical third Silent Civilian album (“Do Not Resuscitate”) and said the plan was to have a new record ready every year to year and a half. At one point, there also was the intent to release an EP featuring covers of classic Bay Area thrash acts; the band actually tracked Slayer’s “War Ensemble” and Death Angel’s “Seemingly Endless Time.”
To date, neither of those releases has materialized, and more than six years of silence followed after the band played its final shows in early 2012.
In June 2018, guitarist Dave Delacruz launched a GoFundMe campaign to help fund a third Silent Civilian album. Though the campaign, which raised $5,435, has since shut down, Santos took to social media in December 2019 and confirmed that a new record, still with the title “Do Not Resuscitate,” was in the works and planned for a 2020 release with a tour to follow. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic happened in 2020, destroying any chance for that to come to fruition.
In fall 2021, Santos confirmed on Instagram that the new album still is on the way and that he was hopeful for a 2022 release.
“Missing the stage and being on tour,” he posted. “Better than any drug I’ve ever done!! Can’t wait to finish the record and get back out there next year. It’s been too long.”
Finally, in July 2022, Santos provided an even more promising update on Instagram.
“It’s official. New Silent Civilian record is underway!” he posted. “We’re having a blast making it, and we can’t wait for you guys to hear it!!”
Even if this is just a false start and a new album is not imminent, it’s still a great time to revisit the two Silent Civilian records we do have. They’ve held up remarkably well while a lot of other music from the mid-2000s sounds incredibly dated. The key is that Santos refused to hitch his wagon to a trendy subgenre, which may have led to more immediate success but forever would be linked to specific point in time.
“There’s so many subgenres of metal at this point, and I’m very, very reluctant to latch onto these subgenres because I just don’t see them standing the test of time …,” Santos said in 2010. “I know that thrash metal, what I like to consider our band to be, has stood the test of time. Thrash metal bands—Testament, Death Angel, Kreator, Exodus—these guys have been around for 25 years and it’s never gone away.”
Make that 35 to 40 years now, and in 2022, thrash metal is in as good a place as it’s been since its 1980s heyday. More than worthy of another chance, the time is right for Silent Civilian to return.