There's an element of Zen that's involved when listening to Nightwish -- you don't question the pageantry or analyze the music; you just let go and enjoy the experience. Perhaps it's no surprise then that End of an Era beings with "Red Warrior" from The Last Samurai booming over arena speakers while thousands of fans roar their approval. It's a dramatic introduction for a band that specializes in theatrics, all of which are captured on the album. There's the crowd, the blast of pyrotechnics, the echo of the music filling a cavernous arena. Recording a band this layered (Guitars! Drums! Vocals! Keyboards! Backing tracks!) in a setting like this is always a risky venture, but the sound quality on End of an Era is exceptional; it manages to capture the vastness of both the venue and the act without being marred by reverberation or uneven tone. Vocalists Tarja Turunen and Marco Hietala soar above it all, their delivery all the more impressive considering that this would be their last concert together -- Turunen was dismissed from the band after the show. Fortunately, Nightwish don't appear to have brought their internal tensions on-stage. The group is in its element here, and its energy doesn't diminish a bit over the course of the two discs it takes to capture the tour-ending show. The biggest strength of End of an Era is its ability to re-create the concert experience; the band is at the forefront, but the cheering, clapping, and chanting of the crowd are included as an integral element of the music, not a separate entity. There are points on the album when this becomes a detriment (particularly during slower, quiet numbers like "Stone People"), but there's nothing more authentic on a live recording than capturing the requisite concertgoer whose duty it is to break the mood by shouting at inappropriate times.
In the end, this dedication to realism is a minor complaint when compared to the benefits, as demonstrated to great effect with the opening number, "Dark Chest of Wonders." This piece brings it all together -- the song itself, dark, theatrical and operatic, with Turunen's rich voice floating over power chords, a charging rhythm section, an orchestral backing track, and the enthusiastic crowd at her feet. It's a fine choice to open the concert, and the recording re-creates everything but the visuals. The vibe continues on "Planet Hell," the first of several songs to showcase a Turunen/Hietala duet and solos by keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen. Powerful performances and dark, romantic themes continue to dominate throughout End of an Era, but this does not mean that the album slows down or becomes monotonous. Instead, each song plays to the band's strength and uses the crowd's energy and enthusiasm to drive forward and craft memorable moments. As in the beginning of the concert, the final songs are rousing, passionate, and dramatic. "Creek Mary's Blood," a lament inspired by Dee Brown's novel of the same name, benefits from the talent of Native American musician John Two Hawks, who also appeared on the studio version of the song. After an extended flute solo (the above-mentioned "Stone People"), Two Hawks sings and plays in a striking duet with Turunen, whose operatic tremolo stands in contrast to her partner's straighter tone. The proceedings take an abrupt turn immediately afterward as Nightwish launch into a rollicking cover of Gary Moore's "Over the Hills and Far Away," transformed into a power metal epic as Holopainen and Vuorinen trade riffs between verses and choruses. The disc comes to a close with the sprawling, gothic "Wish I Had an Angel," a looser and more straightforward rock song that sees Turunen and Hietala alternating their vocal duties for what would be the last time. It's a satisfying ending for a symphonic metal extravaganza, but the real pleasure comes in knowing that it can be experienced all over again.