In 2006 and 2007 Ryan Bartek traveled across the U.S. in a journalistic quest to shine some light on the soft, white underbelly of the heavy metal underground, which resulted in his self-published PDF of his journey entitled The Big Shiny Prison. It seems that his PDF was shared by those “in the know” and passed around like some good moonshine. Fast-forward to 2011 and Bartek decided to return to the well, this time venturing across the pond to expose the metal/punk underground of Europe. This was later distributed as a free PDF, called Fortress Europe and subtitled The Big Shiny Prison Vol. 2. In early 2016, both PDFs were printed in traditional book formats.
Fortress Europe begins with Bartek loosely outlining his objectives and itinerary, quickly pointing out that his travels will all be done with little to no money, which sets the reader’s expectations for the rest of the book. Bartek’s pitch is this: He plans to interview loads of people who are in the underground punk/metal scenes, but rather than the usual line of questioning one would expect, he intentionally asks his subjects questions that often have little to do with music in the conventional sense.
For the most part, I did not recognize many of the people/bands that Bartek included, though Laibach, an expatriated Texas Terri, and longtime muckraker John Sinclair were familiar names. This didn’t matter to me, as some of the most interesting interviews were from some of the more unknown folks. I found these to be refreshing in that people often answered Bartek in an unvarnished manner, which revealed their feelings about broad topics like how they view America, the state of affairs wherever they lived, et cetera.
Bartek’s writing style has been compared to Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson and I guess I could see that. Whether aping his heroes was intentional or not, some of his prose-y patches were compelling but did tend to feel a little clunky overall. Still, his talents are apparent and reading this put me on the lookout for The Big Shiny Prison as well as whatever he does next. Although not necessarily a “music” book, I would totally recommend this to anyone into underground, European metal as well as anyone interested in underground culture in general. –Garrett Barnwell (Anomie Press, bigshinyprison.com)