There were literally dozens of young Steve Vai and Joe Satriani-influenced rock guitarists dreaming of launching big-time instrumental rock careers on shredder specialty labels like Shrapnel during the late '80s and early '90s. Michael Lee Firkins was one of the best artists (if not the best) among these mostly forgotten noodlers. Refusing to play the goofy-outfit-wearing self-marketer, Firkins let his music speak for itself, and as his label's fortunes dwindled with the subsiding popularity of this very specialized genre, that voice was muffled by obscurity. To date, Firkins seems to have not been allowed the resources to record a disc with a production level equal to this debut, and while decent, none of his subsequent instrumental albums captures the same urgency and clarity. Firkins proves himself capable of keeping up with the 64th-note crowd, but his songwriting, tone, and amazing feel for rhythm separate this musician from the gaggle of equipment-endorsing, pink-and-green-guitar-playing instrumental competitors. Rarely can shredders pull off five minutes of blues soloing as intriguing and consistent as Firkins does on "Déjà Blues," much less write a brilliant chorus to wrap around all the screaming leads. The elegant guitar tones and arrangements combined with sticky-sweet melodies and a completely original approach to rock soloing make standouts like "Space Crickets" and "Laughing Stacks" instrumental classics. Central to Firkins' guitar voice is his generous use of country-sounding double stops and a unique picking technique that gives his guitar a cool horn-like quality. Mimicking horns, especially saxophones, is something that many guitarists aspire to do, but only the absolute best (Allan Holdsworth, for instance) can even approximate wind instrument tone, legato, and sustain. Ever the innovator, Firkins actually captures more of a country-metal-clarinet effect during choice lead spots like the springy B section of "Laughing Stacks." Despite his amazing ability, Firkins never took the studio cat or sideman route to second-hand prominence and financial security, the virtuoso preferring instead to woodshed and further tweak his guitar abilities. The resulting excursions are fine efforts, but this debut still stands out as the musician's best collection. ~ Vincent Jeffries, Rovi

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