Music

A Defense of The Foundations of Decay’s Divisive Vocal Mix

My Chemical Romance are, without a doubt, my all time favourite band. Now, that is not to say that every piece of music has ever made is exactly to my personal tastes, but when the band’s catalogue is taken as a whole, I feel like it’s rare the band publishes a track I don’t absolutely love, and even those rare tracks that are not for me, I can see a lot of deliberate craft, creative talent, and impressive technical execution on display within.

As much as their music has changed from one album to the next, there has always been a storytelling ability and emotive delivery present that have put the band head and shoulders above comparable artists.

So when, after almost a decade long hiatus, the band surprise released a new track called The Foundations of decay out of the blue a few days before the start of their reunion tour this year, like many I rushed to listen to it, fuelled by a chaotic mix of nostalgia and excitement that, in all honestly, was as much of a factor in my initial repeated binge listening of the track as the song’s quality itself.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that The Foundations of Decay has been a divisive track among fans of My Chemical Romance since its release, and by far the most common critique I have seen is a dislike for the song’s vocal mixing, which places vocalist Gerard Way much lower and further back in the overall track, more heaviy distorted, which when paired with his increased use of heavy metal inspired screams is a far departure from the band’s earlier work, where Way’s vocals were often clean, precise, loud, and the focus of any given track.

I won’t pretend on first listen I didn’t feel similarly about the track. Once some of the initial excitement of new My Chemical Romance music wore off, I realised that unlike most of the band’s music, I couldn’t cleanly pick out every lyric without reading them online first. I was used to Gerard Way being this very central focus in most of the band’s mixes, and moving away from that was a shock.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. If you listen through Gerard Way’s solo work in the run up to this reunion, particularly the isolated tracks he released following touring for his Hesitant Alien album, this shift in vocal style was not out of nowhere. Tracks such as Hazy Shade of Winter placed Way’s vocals quieter in the overall mix, and experimented with audio filters being applied as he sung. In Getting Down the Germs he experimented with a much more subdued vocal approach and, most notably, a few weeks before The Foundations of Decay released, Gerard way’s guest vocals on the song Ronin by Ibaraki entierly consisted of black metal screams that are far heavier than anything in MCR’s reunion single.

But, getting back to the track itself, I personally came around on the vocal mixing in The Foundations of Decay fairly quickly, in large part due to taking the time to sit with the track’s lyrics.

The Foundations of Decay seems to be a very autobiographical track, as evidenced by a verse that chronicles the day Gerard Way witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Centre. When you take the time to look at the song’s lyric as an autobiographical take on the band’s return, combined with confirmatory statements given by the singer during the band’s currently ongoing reunion tour, it feels like a lot of choices regarding the vocal style of the song, and the mixing of the vocal volume, are deliberate choices made to reinforce narrative themes present throughout the song.

And so tired with age, he turns the page
Let the flesh submit itself to gravity

Let our bodies lay while our hearts will stay
Let our blood invade if I die in pain
Now, if your convictions were a passing phase
May your ashes feed the river in the morning rays
And as the vermin crawls, we lay in the foundations of decay

And if, by his own hand, his spirit flies
Take his body as a relic to be canonized

Yes, it comforts me much more
Yes, it comforts me much more
To lay in the foundations of decay

Get up, coward

When asked about the breaking up of My Chemical Romance, either during individual artidt tour interviews or during their recent reunion, members of the band routinely discuss that following the sucess of The Black Parade, the quest for a follow up album, and the tour for Danger Days, all of the members of the band felt under immense pressure and scrutiny as a result of their global explosion in popularity.

Gerard in particular has discussed a pressure to keep his voice pristine and perfect, undamaged, and unable to ever let himself falter as a performer.

During a recent show in Dublin, he explained that he felt like during the Black Parade and Danger Days tours he had to constantly be at 100%, because “what if he was asked to suddenly perform in front of the queen at a moment’s notice?”. At other dates on the tour, he explicitly discussed a feeling of freedom at being able to experiment more now with his voice, and a sense that there was less pressure on him to keep that pristine level of perfection compared to during the band’s prime, as well as a more general feeling that the pressure is off for the band to be the biggest band in the world, the way they were once expected.

Given that context, I think it’s fair to interpret a lot of the lyrical content in The Foundations of Decay as being very directly about the band aging, coming to terms with the fact they may not regain the heights of mainstream sucess they once had, and not letting that fear prevent them from experimenting, taking risks, and making new music.

And so tired with age, he turns the page
Let the flesh submit itself to gravity

Gerard here acknowledges that he and the band are aging, and are not the people they were a decade prior.

Let our bodies lay while our hearts will stay
Let our blood invade if I die in pain

This is followed swiftly by a call to the listener – a plea for acceptance of that change and shift. It’s not a demand, but a hope and desire that even if they are aging, the listener stops to listen, and notice that the heart of their music remains.

Now, if your convictions were a passing phase
May your ashes feed the river in the morning rays

Before continuing to essentially say to the listener “If you don’t enjoy us now that we’re aging, and are changing as people and performers, and you do not enjoy the new music we create now we’re not in our 20’s, we feel no ill will, we won’t hold on to you, and hope that you will flow along the river, in the morning rays, to find something new you enjoy”

And as the vermin crawls, we lay in the foundations of decay

A core motif of the song throughout is themes of decay, and I think this potentially serves two thematic purposes. Firstly, it emphasises the discussions of aging and time passing for the band, as decay like aging is a natural process you cannot fight, that will break things down over time.

However, it also serves as a metaphor for giving up, often framed as laying in the foundations of decay throughout the bulk of the track. The easy thing to do is giving up making new work, and to lay in those foundations of decay. It’s even described as comforting, likely because it avoids the risk of that any new material runs of being poorly recieved.

Yes, it comforts me much more
Yes, it comforts me much more
To lay in the foundations of decay

Get up, coward

This comes back full circle at the end of the track, when gerard screams “Get up coward” in response to the central statement. Just because you’re decaying, doesn’t mean you should give in and give up. Don’t lay in the foundations of decay, get up and continue making new things, even in the face of that decay. Embrace the decay, and keep creating.

It’s in the following context that the vocal mix of The Foundations of Decay makes the most narrative and thematic sense to me as a track. The song is very directly a song about decay, something emphasised by Gerard’s vocals being less at the forefront, distorted and screamed, less clean and centred, as though they have themselves decayed over the years.

It’s a vocal line that is in direct opposition to audience expectation, and acts almost as a thesis statement for Way. He’s not going to be afraid to scream, even if it damages his voice and he’s not ready for a surprise performance for The Queen. He’s going to keep singing, and experimenting, even if it means he might not hit every note on every tack in their back catalogue perfectly forever.

And if, by his own hand, his spirit flies
Take his body as a relic to be canonized

The above lines feel like a direct call to the listener. The band could have kept their legacy exactly as it was, placed on a shelf unable to be altered by taking risks on new sounds. Gerard could have kept his voice pristine, afraid to risk losing this holy relic considered too sacred to damage.

The vocal mix feels like a rejection of these lines in particular. The band does not want to leave their legacy as a relic to be canonised, and as a first song back after a hiatus this song makes that message loud and clear.

Lastly, seeing the song played live also emphasised my appreciation of the vocal mix and style. In many ways, it feels like the song was designed first and foremost to be performed live, where the wall of sound is able to envolope the listener.

There is a very specific energy when My Chemical Romance perform this song live for a crowd that I don;t think the studio recording really captures, and is in large part because you can see Gerard Way really leaning into these lyrics. As he screams about letting his aging body submit itself to gravity, and this fear that the listener’s interest in the band might have been a passing phase, a huge smile can;t help to break out across his face, as the audience screams along with him, showing that they are okay with rejecting the idea his voice should be placed aside as a canonised relic.

By the time the song is over, and it’s time to scream Get Up Coward, he’s beaming ear to ear. The crowd has made it clear that refusing to lay in the foundations of decay was the correct decision.

Look at the above image. This man just sung about how he hopes he’s allowed to let his body submit itself to gravity, and hopes that even following decay fans don’t stop enjoying his music. He’s beaming at the crowd response.

Pair this with the fact that at several live shows Gerard leaned even more heavily into vocal distortion, applying a robotic filter over his performance, and the deliberate decay and of his vocal line in a song so thematically about decay really lands.

I get that a lot of this is my personal interpretation of lyrics, and that not everyone is going to agreeeither with my interpretation, or my feelings that in context the vocal mix is thematically satisfying, but as I sit here listening to The Foundations of Decay on loop, I can no longer imagine it performed or mixed any other way.

Categories: Music