Never Ending Game: one of hardcore’s toughest bands just wanna have fun
If you didn’t know anyone in Never Ending Game, you would expect them to be the scariest people you ever met. Vocalist Mike Petroski's stage presence is menacing without trying to be, letting his coarse delivery speak independently. If he does speak in between songs, it’s relatively brief and full of the usual pleasantries you would expect. But once the music comes in, you can see bodies in movement. Some cover their heads with one hand while swinging their other arm indiscriminately. Others are at the front, singing along and piling on each other during a singalong section.
But just describing Never Ending Game as hard is surface-level. One thing doesn’t characterize a band or person’s entire being. When you look closely, many of the lyrics in a Never Ending Game song aren’t far removed from what you would find in indie rock. It’s just that the discussions of mental health aren’t at the forefront. It requires the listener to engage deeper and pour over the lyric sheet. When you spend time with a song like “1 Of These Nights,” you feel the anguish behind the metallic hardcore fury. The line “The tears I've cried have left me blind” sounds more at home on an emo record than on a hardcore one. It’s part of the power of Never Ending Game. Petroski uses the tropes of heavy hardcore to express something personal that anyone who struggles with mental health can relate to.
There is a little shift on Outcry, the newest record for Never Ending Game. Where in previous releases, things felt dire, there is a bit more optimism. Living with those negative emotions constantly can be draining. There are moments that I would call spiritual (“Never Die”) and make me wonder what the context for each song is. These high-minded topics are packaged in a way that is accessible for your average hardcore kid. You can still sing along without internalizing the message. And if you want lyrics that are a little more familiar, you get that in “Clown,” which ends with the line “because you’re two-faced and too fake.”
In talking to guitarists Mike Wasylenko and Will Kaelin, they quickly point out that though they make hard music and deal with heavy topics, the project has some levity. “People who don’t know us hear our music and think these must be the toughest dudes… If you don’t know these guys, you listen to the music; you think they are just going to the shooting range after practice, but we’re like being stupid and laughing the entire time,” says Kaelin. The silly energy occasionally appears, especially on “N.E.G. Jams.” It is an abrupt shift, a practice session goof that just happened to make it on record. I imagine most people skip it when listening through Just Another Day, the band's 2019 debut LP. But Never Ending Game included it because they thought it would be a fun thing to do. That lack of self-seriousness carries into the live show as well. Maybe someone gets punched in the nose and splatters blood everywhere, but he’s still smiling about it.
That sense of fun is carried through with Outcry. Any idea, no matter how wacky it may seem, is indulged. The phrase that comes up the most during my interview is “leveling up.” The band seems to know how difficult it is to write a successful sophomore hardcore record. “Especially on this new record, we put so much into song structure and putting something catchy for people to sing along to. It seems like the majority of the record is built like a song,” says Kaelin. Part of that can be attributed to Kaelin’s contributions to Gridiron and their borderline rapcore on No Good at Goodbyes. He was writing from a pop music standpoint. He began to understand that people want something they can sing along to; writing the hardest breakdown possible is cool, but maybe that gets old after a while. This change in songwriting is most apparent in “Tank on E.” It’s structured as if it’s a pop-punk song but without the trappings of that genre. It doesn’t abandon the core elements of what makes a successful Never Ending Game song, though. You still get a breakdown at the end for the dancers.
The journey towards Outcry has been incremental. You can look all the way back to a decade ago when Kaelin was still finding his voice with Detain, the band he joined near the end of high school. If you listen to their EP, State of Emergency, you can see some similar tropes that show up in a Never Ending Game song. His ethos at that time was to write “the literal hardest songs I possibly can while walking the line of cheesiness.” That goal can be heard firsthand on Never Ending Game’s debut. The first song on it does the familiar thing of saying their name in the song. There’s a Goodfellas clip later too. It’s the type of thing that can be read as corny, but it feels so resonant that they still play songs off the demo to this day. “Welcome” summarizes everything Never Ending Game would like to do. They will embed a guitar solo after a thudding breakdown and a finger-pointing singalong.
But the most important element that may not get enough attention comes from Wasylenko. Your favorite guitar flair or solo from Never Ending Game on Just Another Day probably comes from him. His addition to the formation of the band changed the makeup. For Wasylenko, metal came first, describing himself as the type of seventh grader who would wear an ...And Justice for All t-shirt. Before Never Ending Game, he was in an overt death metal band Breaking Wheel, who would play alongside hardcore bands. It shifts Never Ending game from a project inspired by Cold as Life and Biohazard to something slightly different.
Never Ending Game’s story has an abrupt pause in the middle of it. Though people may tire of seeing the pandemic tied into any story about a band in the 2020s, it is relevant to this one. “We put out Just Another Day and played like five shows, and then Covid happened. We thought no one is going to remember us. It’s hardcore. There are so many new bands popping off,” says Wasylenko. It may seem like a silly thought, but there are plenty of hardcore bands whose momentum was halted. That didn’t stop for Never Ending Game, helped by an EP released in 2021. These circumstances allow Outcry to feel more like a celebration than your typical second record for a hardcore band. It’s coming out at a highly opportune time as well. Interest in hardcore seems to be at a peak; Kaelin is acutely aware of this fact, noting that now they’re playing to thousands at Sound and Fury rather than five people in the middle of nowhere.
But even with all this added interest, Never Ending Game doesn’t aspire to make it a full-time job. Everyone has spread apart in multiple cities. It makes every show feel like a special event, like the one coming at Tied Down in their hometown of Detroit. If there are tours, it will be relatively short, like the one they did with Turnstile in 2021. It allows them to exist in a special space that has become a viable option for a hardcore band in 2023. You can still remain relevant without touring constantly. It makes the stakes behind Outcry relatively minimal. There aren’t any huge expectations and anything that comes as a result of its release is a welcomed addition.
“I just want to leave some kind of legacy behind. I just want to have something out there that I’m proud of. We’re going to keep going,” says Kaelin. “We have no plans of ever stopping this band. I want this to be the legacy band people push in 30 years.”
Outcry is out now via Triple B Records. Stream it below and pick up our exclusive splatter vinyl variant, limited to just 250 copies.
Never Ending Game also announced a short tour with Gridiron, including NJ's Kenilworth VFW on May 20 with Mindforce, Bulldoze, Pain of Truth, Shackled, Missing Link, Fools Game, Hold My Own, and Negative Force; and Long Island's Amityville Music Hall on July 1 with Killing Pace, Scarab, and Balmora. All dates are listed below.
2. Never Die ft. Trapped Under Ice's Justice Tripp and Sam Trapkin
3. Down There (With You)
4. Hate Today... Die Tomorrow
5. Tank On E
7. Goin' Thru Some Things
9. Fire of the Heart
11. Something Wrong
Never Ending Game -- 2023 Tour Dates
5/20 – Kenilworth, NJ @ VFW
6/2 – Chicago, IL @ Metro w/ Drain, Incendiary, and more
6/3 – Detroit, MI @ Tied Down Fest
6/30 – Pittsburg, PA @ Perserving Underground
7/1 – Long Island, NY @ Amityville Music Hall
7/2 – Philadelphia, PA @ F.U. Church
7/3 – Richmond, VA @ The Warehouse
7/4 – Toledo, OH @ Ottawa Tavern