This relative seriousness is apparent from the start. "Szikra Intro" reimagines Kovács' 2014 Studio Barnhus single as a solid ambient intro, without the cheeky directive to get "fucked up." In general, vocals are rare here, even as Kovács retains his love of a "chipmunk soul sample" and a "big, beautiful breakdown." Kicking off The Bells in earnest, "BB" is a masterful take on the pitched-up sound. Helium-voiced divas float over a chicken-scratch guitar lead while maudlin chords loom in the background. When the sampled bassline drops, it's clear Kovács means business.
With albums from Axel Boman, Baba Stiltz and now Kovács, Studio Barnhus is developing and defining a new Swedish house sound. Kovács, however, began his deep dive into dance music and DJ culture in thrall of UK breakbeats, and you can hear this on The Bells. Take the twitchy drum programming on "Dollar Club," which sounds like a modern UK bass track combined with propulsive, Todd Terje-esque nu-disco. Later, "Josey's Tune" drapes some ominous arps over bashment-style percussion. Kovács jumps all over the place stylistically, but his consistent use of gauzy, slightly overdriven synths keeps things consistent. On the other hand, some more far-fetched diversions, such as the jokey "Gex," make his knack for melodic, bittersweet house cuts seem even stronger.
There are a handful of crafty bangers on The Bells, culminating with the title track. An austere voice intones the title before Kovács slyly works in FM synth bells, ascending the cautiously optimistic heights of classic Kompakt. It's Kovács' most memorable track to date, and therefore a pretty tough act to follow. "Pop" is the only throwaway—following all the magnificence, the tune's ever-present distortion is off-putting. "Urszusz," however, is proper end credits stuff. You can picture Kovács driving out into the sunset to the 105 BPM cut, and the melancholic sound suggests he's riding alone. But Kovács allows himself a laugh as the album closes, sampling a couple of drunken dudes engaged in a singalong. "What's his name?" they ask. "Kornél Kovács!" goes the response. The bravado is earned: The Bells is an accomplishment worthy of celebration.