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Personally, I like the first two as well. Why did you prefer shooting without flashes?
OntheRez, the mat is very visible in the second shot, but because of the angle of the flash, it's effect is minimized.
I'd say one possibility would be to use directional and bounced flash. This gives you the contrast and clarity of a directional light, but the bounce will fill in the shadows a little, giving you a slightly flatter dynamic range. Directional would be much lower power than the bounce, but it would drive the contrast.
You can also mix in ambient, though phased lighting, and crappy exposure values for ambient, plus the need for specialized equipment (high speed sync compatible hotshoe flashes, ttl compatible wireless tx/rx units) can be a hassle, but the payoff is the need for a smaller lighter kit, and not as much output power since you're combining exposures with ambient, not completely overpowering them.
Just some thoughts