The Fragile Art of Existence is renowned Death guitarist/singer Chuck Shuldiner’s swan song to his fans before he lost his two-year battle against cancer in the end of 2001. Interestingly, Chuck was in the process of composing/recording his follow-up to this album, but unfortunately nothing has come of it. Control Denied was his side project which he had put together in order to concentrate more on his guitar playing and unique songwriting. Chuck does not do his trademarked death vocals on this one. Enter Tim Aymar (Psycho Scream, Pharaoh) with traditional Heavy Metal-like vocals that are often compared to the likes of Rob Halford, Warrel Dane and Bruce Dickinson. While I don’t hear the Dickinson influence, I tend to agree with the Halford/Dane comparisons to an extent, as Tim Aymar belts out some scary high screams like Halford and possesses a similar delivery to Dane. You need to check out his band Pharaoh if you want to hear more of that. This album was originally intended to have Nevermore singer Warrel Dane on vocals, but things didn’t work out and Tim Aymar got the gig. I love Warrel Dane’s vocals to no end, but Tim Aymar really gives this album its final touch as a killer frontman.
Shannon Hamm shares the guitar duties with Chuck, often playing cutting thrash-based riffs that sharply contrast Chuck’s ethereal and textural playing which often spiral into crushing metal riffage during the solos and mid-sections of the tunes. Both guitarists interlock thrashy riffs alongside some curious tremelo picking and even add some plucked acoustic guitars (“When the Link Becomes Missing”) which are later embraced by a forceful, melodic metal drive. The solo in this song is possibly my favourite on the album together with Chuck’s textural playing in the closing track. It’s a solo that builds up very slowly and becomes this intense, passionate expression towards the end — it simply sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. Steve DiGiorgio and Richard Christy continue to be an unmatchable duo in thrash/death metal driven music as DiGiorgio plays fat bass figures as well as interesting funky melodies, as in the intro of “What If …?”, and works his bass as an independent instrument throughout the whole album. Richard Christy is a great fit for this type of music, though I feel his snare sound gets a little muffled in some parts because of the mix, but he proves to be the perfect drummer for Control Denied in the way he exhibits powerful synchopated rhythms and technically impossible drum fills.
What makes The Fragile Art of Existence so great, in my opinion, is that it consists of only eight tracks and has a total running time of 50 minutes. There are no fillers here; each song is compositionally-strong, graced by brilliant musicianship and a fitting production (by Chuck and Jim Morris). The progressive side explored on Death’s last album, The Sound of Perseverance, is even more boldly carried over to this album, particularly in the multi-textured “Expect the Unexpected”, which not only has a great vocal melody, but also features various harmony changes. The centrepieces of the album, “What If ….?” and “When the Link Becomes Missing” are both thrash-rooted progressive songs in the way that allow Chuck to play textural guitars that fiercely contrast the otherwise heavy music, mainly driven by Hamm and DiGiorgio. This is further explored in the almost 10-minute epic, “The Fragile Art of Existence”, which is Chuck’s testament to stylistic cohesion and passionate songwriting. Three minutes into the song, Aymar coldly utters the words “NO TIME FOR SELF-PITY” and the textured guitar riffs are suddenly replaced by tasty guitar shred before giving way to the initial atmospheric guitar themes.
Chuck’s lyrics on this one are perhaps his most introspective and personal lyrics (hence he chose a different project that would separate his musical vision from Death) and Travis Smith comes up with a very fitting artwork. The album is mixed, engineered and mastered by Jim Morris and co-produced by Chuck himself. If you’re a metal fan, be it thrash, heavy or prog, and don’t own this, then your collection is incomplete.