At the dawn of the '90s, Ministry could be whatever it wanted. Having engineered a potent synthesis of the harshest American post-hardcore punk and the hardest European techno, front man Alain Jourgensen was free to indulge in a half-dozen half-baked side projects and even to pursue a growing interest in country music. A well-publicized drug bust and the decline of the alt-rock market, however, have altered Ministry's situation.

On its recent albums, Jourgensen and longtime partner Paul Barker (or Hypo Luxa and Hermes Pan, their production-credit alter egos) seem less explorers of industrial music than mere industrial workers. Although the title of the new "Dark Side of the Spoon" (Warner Bros.) makes reference to Jourgensen's former heroin habit, the album sounds simply like a routine product of the Ministry assembly line.

As song titles like "Bad Blood" and "Vex & Siolence" attest, Ministry still deals in brutal, aggressively gloomy imagery. Indeed, for this album the quartet has returned to such earlier dark-siders as the Doors ("Whip and Chain") and Medium Medium ("Nursing Home") for inspiration. Also layered into the characteristically dense mixes are borrowings from goth, blues, techno, metal and punk, as well as some banjo and saxophone (both played by Jourgensen). The band, which performs tonight at the 9:30 club, still crafts tangled soundscapes worth investigating with headphones.

Yet there are signs that Jourgensen and Barker have lost some interest in Ministry's quest. In "Step," Jourgensen adopts a country-music drawl to apologize to his fans: "I wish I could take you all to the Betty Ford Clinic," a joke that sounds as wilted as the band's latest flowers-of-evil bouquet. When the singer announces, "Here is the end/ Here is nothing"--the album's final lyric--he may just mean it.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)