Perhaps the strangest of 1998’s premillennial spectacles happened over the final weekend of the year at the Bowery Ballroom, where New York beheld Einstürzende Neubauten, pop band. Blixa Bargeld et al., formerly purveyors of an intensely physical primitivism, now stage a very modernist take on Berlin cabaret that’s as slickly produced as a David Copperfield special.

Neubauten ’98 still plumb the musicality of nonmusical elements, only now they base their pieces around shifting vocal soundscapes rather than the smash and clatter of an electrified junkyard. It’s not necessarily a problem that they no longer beat on abandoned grocery carts, but it’s a problem that what they do now is not as good. Last Monday’s set began with a bunch of relatively straight numbers, a Germanic New Order with extra percussion around the edges. Things picked up from there, but something vital was AWOL. The assault they once reveled in— these guys damn near set the Palladium on fire in ’86— is long gone. But more troubling, perhaps, is the absence of the gutter-rat inventiveness that initially led Neubauten to sculpt symphonies from scrap metal. The industrial objects they now use seem to be chosen more for visual than sonic effect.

A high point was “Headcleaner,” the 16-minute-plus song from ’93’s Tabula Rasa (initially 45 minutes, according to Blixa— now that would have been something to hear). Live, “Headcleaner” demonstrated that Neubauten can stretch material just short of its breaking point even without raiding a machine shop. Still, a machine shop wouldn’t have hurt. Sorely missed: the brutal percussion and sheet-metal work of recently departed F.M. Einheit. One kept waiting for a big bang that never came.