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Actually if I were going to go beyond the idea of a concept album with "The Wall" I would be more inclined to call it an oratorio, similar to Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" or "Passion Play," rather than a rock opera like "Jesus Christ Superstar" or the Who's "Tommy." That is because the over riding unity of the songs in "The Wall" is thematic rather than narrative in nature. The bleak double album is Roger Waters' meditation on the walls human beings build up to ensure their survival in the post-modern world. It is also something of a departure from the group's previous albums, most notably "The Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here," it that the group's signature cosmic rock sound is giving way to some more traditional pop music sensibilities. The compelling electronics and other special effects that had become key components of Pink Floyd's music, and which put "Dark Side of the Moon" on the chart for literally years, now takes a back seat to the themes and lyrics (although there are still some choice moments, such as when Gomer Pyle shows up on "Nobody Home").
The "story," such as it is, concerns a rock star named Pink (no subtlety here, boys and girls), who is disgusted with the lesser human being he has become as a result of his celebrity. The key song in the album is "Comfortably Numb" (co-written by lead guitarist Dave Gilmour), which is one of the classic rock songs about alienation, although obviously the title begs to have it labeled a song about intoxication by the drug on your choice. But the context for lyrics such as "You are only coming through in waves/Your lips move, but I can't hear what you're saying" is clearly about the despair of being disconnected from humanity. It is also a lament about the lose of childhood, which remains in Waters' vision the time when we are at our best as human beings:
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb
The music for "Comfortably Numb" is both operatic and eerie, a paradox that is nonetheless accurate. The relentlessly depressing picture of a rock star's life would have you worrying about the mental health of Roger Waters if it were not for the suspicion he is writing as much about the life in general and former Pink Floyd lead guitarist and main songwriter Syd Barrett as it is an attempt at catharsis by Waters after spitting on a fan during a concert for daring to applaud during an acoustic number. I always was struck by the start of "Mother," with one of the very best examples of a caesura with the extremely effective pause between the first line, "Mother, do you think they'll drop the bomb?" and the second, "Mother, do you think they'll like this song?" There is a world of meaning in the vocal silence there that I have never forgotten.
There are two pitfalls to "The Wall." The first is that Pink Floyd released a rare single with "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," which mean that school children rebelling against the system now had something to sing throughout the year while waiting for the end of the year to do Alice Cooper's "Schools Out." Consequently, in the popular consciousness "The Wall" was boiled down to the following potent lyrics:
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.
Yet taken in its totality it can hardly be said that the primary purpose of this double-album was an attack on the educational system in England. In song after song the "character" is blaming others for his troubles, so it is not surprising that teachers end up on that list. But the success of the single made it seem this was what the whole thing was all about. For that matter, there are more songs concerned with the threat of nuclear destruction ("Mother," "Goodbye Blue Skies") than education. By the time you through Waters' paranoia over Great Britain becoming fascist ("Run Like Hell") the whole indictment of education seems like just another, well, you know what (which would be the point, right?).
The second concern is that the disparity between the highs and lows on this album are rather substantial. It is rather like sitting through an opera and some of recitatives (e.g., "Goodbye Cruel World") to get to the arias (e.g., "Hey You"). The best tracks on this album are as pretty good, but you still have to sit through some less than stellar sections (e.g., "One of My Turns"). The loose narrative is not enough to help us connect the dots and I suspect it is only by really getting totally into the album and trying to achieve consubstantiality with the creative vision of Roger Waters that you can really make sense of it all. This is why the production values of "The Wall" as performed by Pink Floyd in concert tended to replace the psychological dimensions of listening to it in the dark in your room.
The key thing here is that there are moments in "The Wall" that match its ambition. The sum is greater than the total of the parts, but there is certainly nothing wrong with that being the case.