Pandamonium at London Kentish Town Bull & Gate

Corporate rock still sucks. But down here, when no-one's looking, the future's being written...

Quick on the trigger, Fierce Panda. Just as NME is gearing up for a week of London Astoria gigs, this bushy-tailed indie label jumps the gun with five nights of tuneful testimony to the ingenuity of the lo-fi fringe. It's a promising first 'festival' of 1999 and, knowing the keen Panda instinct, somewhere in this bevy of bands lurks next year's enormodome headliners.

The opening salvo is a menacingly beautiful blast of drone rock, courtesy of London-based sextet TV One. Densely layering squiggling Moog and sparse vocals over a bass-heavy thrum, they cast out hooky panoramic soundscapes as they go. It's a bit spooky when one song sounds like 'Kids In America', but not as spooky as HEFNER's acoustic set, which is excruciatingly shrill. Nevertheless, Hefner's signature bedsit vignettes ring out poignantly, and hearts melt audibly in their wake.

SEAFOOD,(pictured) meanwhile, take this opportunity to preview some new material - but their guitars mutiny, resulting in a ten-minute bout of retuning. "All part of Thursday night fun," intones bassist Kevin. Only it's Tuesday. Once they get going, though, their searing guitar riffs and David's measured Malkmus delivery make the whole world go momentarily, deliciously, slantwise.

LINOLEUM, like Thursday's headliners THE PECADILOES, have suffered fickle major label-dom only to come bouncing back into the indie ghetto with renewed vigour. They now lash out with sweet, obsessive fury, and new Panda single ('You're Back Again') packs coy seduction and icy disinterest into a sparkling helix of uncoiling guitar.

Just as some bands grandly return to the Panda forest after venturing afield, other noisy upstarts - like ARCHIVE and TWIST - make their first steps into the fray. While Plymouth boys Archive are a little bit shy and a little bit Mogwai, marking their London debut with dreamy post-rock strummings, Twist are a brash quartet of raaawk starlets from Birmingham who rip through the legacy of grunge-era Hole with lacquered fervour.

It's Oxford-spawned cubs COLDPLAY, though, who make a surprise grab at the best-of-the-week honours, sucking in the metropolis' entire community of A&R baldheads with their Jeff Buckley-style vocal virtuosity and penchant for the sort of epic melody that would make Embrace go week at the knees. True, they have terrible hair. But give set-closer 'Shiver' a moment to breathe, and the spectre of stardom becomes ridiculously, obviously imminent.

Five years ago Fierce Panda first put their ears to the ground and heard a burbling undercurrent of talent too small for the Goliath labels to notice. For the most part, 1999 and corporate rock still sucks. But down here, when no-one's looking, the future's being written. Sounds like it's gonna be a great year.

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