Return to Fortress Europe (The Big Shiny Prison Volume 3) By Ryan Bartek, 242 pgs.

Jul 21, 2023

Traveling writing is nothing new. For decades, punk rock zine writers have been producing mountains of underground literature documenting their expeditions across town, across the country, and across the planet, while mainstream authors like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson brought their own versions of travel madness into family living rooms across the world. In his latest book, Return to Fortress Europe (The Big Shiny Prison Volume 3), author Ryan Bartek puts his own spin on the travel writing game as he journeys throughout Europe, not only covering the most vital underground metal bands from places like Romania, Portugal, and Greece, but also providing thoughtful analysis and insight into political struggles/protests taking place in the these countries at the same time.

Straight outta Detroit, Mich., Ryan Bartek is a writer/musician entrenched in the underground metal scene, both as a journalist and as an artist. The travels and events documented in Return to Fortress Europe take place in a pre-COVID era around the time the Occupy movement was making news across the world. Many of the bands interviewed (Krepskul, Corpus Christii, Convixion) reference the protests and offer thoughtful insight into the unique set of problems faced by each artist’s homeland: corruption, rampant poverty, the EU, police brutality, et cetera. It’s very satisfying to read the musings of these clearly intelligent interviewees as they crush the myth of the “dumb metal head.” Maybe that’s more of an American thing. Then again, Dee Snider was righteous during the 1980s PMRC hearings.

The chunks of Return to Fortress Europe that focus more on traveling are equally impressive. Bartek really makes the reader feel the chill of walking down a dark highway half a planet away from home, broke, alone, and not being sure exactly how you’re going to get to where you hope you’re going. All-night bus rides, international hitch hiking, sleeping in public parks, meeting a man who seems to have recently survived burning to death, bonding with the locals by celebrating a news video clip of a cop getting a true ass-beating, and close calls with random menacing sketchiness are all covered in a matter-of-fact way that endearingly lacks any self-pitying arrogance. On the other hand, Bartek seems to honestly and fully appreciate the drinking-beer-in-the-hot-sun “permanent vacation” moments that his nomadic lifestyle tends to make room for.

Aside from the intro (intros have sure been pissing me off lately), Return to Fortress Europe (The Big Shiny Prison Volume 3) really rips it up: lower-than-low-budget international travel, metal, anarchist/working class politics of Eastern Europe, the connection between metal and anarchist/working class politics of Eastern Europe, adventure, shawarmas—and the writing is great. Apparently, there are two other books in this series, and they’re all available free of charge online. That said, Return to Fortress Europe is definitely worth checking out and definitely worth supporting financially, if able. –Buddha (Anomie Press, [email protected])